March 1, 2010 — -- A Florida appeals court has upheld a $25.8 million judgment against Walgreens over an error by a teenage pharmacy technician that resulted in a mother of three receiving blood thinner pills with a dosage ten times greater than prescribed.
Beth Hippely of Lakeland, Florida, suffered a massive, crippling stroke after taking the pills and was forced to stop treatment for early stage breast cancer. She died in 2007, before the case went to trial.
The judgment against Walgreens was one of the largest ever because of a prescription error and the appeals court upheld it without comment last Friday.
The lawyer for the Hippely family, Karen Terry, said "justice has finally been served after eight years in which Walgreens has dragged out this litigation."
There will be more on the case on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer Monday evening.
The case highlighted the use by major drug store chains of pharmacy technicians who in many states are not required to have a high school diploma.
In court testimony, the technician, Janelle Banks, said she had typed in "ten milligrams" on Hippely's prescription when it should have been one milligram.
Prior to working at Walgreens, the teen had worked at a movie theater where she made popcorn.
"If they don't change things they are going to continue to see judgments and maim people," said Terry, the Hippely family lawyer.
There is no minimum national standard for the training of pharmacy technicians who are supposed to work under the close supervision of licensed pharmacists.
'The Same Level of Training as Someone Working in Fast Food'
Walgreens would not comment on the Hippely case ruling, but said, in a statement, "We continuously work to improve quality, accuracy and service and we provide continuous training development programs for all pharmacy staff."
Critics say the major drug store chains have adopted a "fast food" culture to enhance profits, pushing pharmacists to oversee the prescriptions filled by as many as four or five technicians at a time.
"In fact, a lot of the people working in the pharmacy have about the same level of training as someone that would be working in fast food," said Trent Speckhals, an Atlanta lawyer now involved in a number of prescription error lawsuits.
"Forgetting to put your fries in the bag isn't going to lead to any harm, but obviously we're dealing with something much more serious with medicine," he said.
In a lawsuit he is bringing against Kroger's, Speckhals said pharmacy technicians complained of being overworked and afraid to take time to go to the bathroom.
There are no publicly available figures on the number of prescription errors in the country because pharmacies are not required under federal law to report prescription errors, even those resulting in serious injury or death. The actual error rates are treated by the big drug chains as closely held secrets, and they will not disclose even whether the number of errors has gone up or down over the years.
"I'm not aware of a public desire to know" the rates, said Edith Rosato, executive director of the National Chain Drug Store trade group.
The group has opposed calls for mandatory reporting of serious errors, but Rosato said, "If there was a requirement to report it, a federal requirement, our members would comply because they comply with the law."
Rosato said the chains strive "to put procedures in place, whether it's advancements in technician training, whether it's new technologies, that allow for verification of the prescription with the actual tablet in the bottle."