Lawsuit: Walgreens prescription error killed man

ByABC News
November 2, 2007, 2:31 AM

JACKSONVILLE -- When Terry Paul Smith complained about the drug he'd been taking for back and leg pain, his doctor changed the 46-year-old roofer's prescription to methadone, a narcotic pain reliever.

Smith filled the prescription at a Walgreens pharmacy here and took the first pills soon after returning to the long-term-stay motel where he'd been living with his wife and children.

Within 36 hours, he was dead, curled up on the shower floor.

Next week, a Duval County jury is scheduled to begin weighing allegations that a small yet catastrophic Walgreens error in the directions on the pill bottle caused the July 2001 tragedy.

"I was angry and very devastated. I didn't understand how that mistake could be made," Smith's widow, Pearl, said in an interview.

The Illinois-based pharmacy chain has challenged the three verdicts and has moved to dismiss the court complaint filed by attorneys for Smith's family. Nonetheless, the cases could pose a safety and image challenge for the company that calls itself "The Pharmacy America Trusts" as the rapidly expanding chain vies with industry rivals that have been similarly sued in prescription-error lawsuits.

"If it gets a lot of press, and these things recur every month and the press keeps picking up on it, publicity could end up hurting them a little bit," said Joseph Agnese, a Standard & Poor's equity analyst who covers the drugstore industry. "If it's something that's recurring and you see the risk (of a prescription error) as being really high, it could begin to impact your behavior. But we're not anywhere near that right now."

Like Agnese, John Ransom, an equity analyst and director of health care research for Raymond James & Associates, said prescription errors account for a fraction of the more than 583 million prescriptions Walgreens dispensed during the fiscal year that ended in August.

"I'm sure it has an effect, but it's hard to quantify it," Ransom said of the cases and attending publicity. "It's not great."

Walgreens took a similar stance, emphasizing what it contended was a relatively small number of misfills. "These cases span a number of years, during which millions of prescriptions were filled by Walgreens and other pharmacies every day. The verdicts are clearly outside the norm, rather than a trend," said company spokesman Michael Polzin.

"We strongly disagree with these verdicts, none of which are final," he said.

Like most pharmacies, Walgreens is coping with a market shortage of pharmacists at a time when national prescription volume is increasing. Parts of 42 states were identified as facing a pharmacist shortage in a January employment survey by the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.