An Oklahoma doctor facing charges of unlawfully operating a “pill mill” decided to fight the charges at trial as opposed to accepting a plea after the Supreme Court raised the bar in lawsuits against doctors charged with opioid violations. According to the new rule, prosecutors must not only establish that the prescription was medically unnecessary, but also that the prescriber knew that at the time of writing the prescription.

Prior to this, doctors facing opioid charges had to argue that the prescriptions they wrote were medically necessary given the prevailing standard of care. This could be tricky because today we have a vastly different standard of care when it comes to opioids than we did in the 1990s when these drugs were first hitting the market. The new rule makes it possible for doctors to argue that they were acting in good faith when they wrote the prescriptions.

Typically, the prosecution would bring on a doctor who would look over the prescriptions written by the defendant and say things like, “this has no medical merit” or “this patient doesn’t need painkillers”. So, the jury gets the sense that the doctor was writing the prescriptions for the sole purpose of drug trafficking. In fact, there may be evidence that some doctors did engage in drug trafficking as part of a kickback scheme for illegal prescriptions. But these prosecutions are not making those allegations. Instead, they are saying that the doctor was negligent.

The new rule will make it impossible for prosecutors to convict doctors of a crime based only on negligence. They must now prove intentional misconduct as well. This raises the bar for prosecutors and ensures that good doctors will not get caught in the crossfire of opioid hysteria.

Ruan v. The United States 

The decision that made it more difficult to convict doctors has not made it impossible to convict them. There will be some cases in which the prosecution can establish that the doctor knowingly wrote a prescription that they knew they shouldn’t have. However, negligence lawsuits against doctors are decided based on the prevailing standard of care for the profession. If every doctor in the country is dolling out opioids like Halloween candy then the standard itself is lax. However, you cannot hold an individual doctor liable for a lax standard of care. You have to change the standard of care. Since we have a higher standard today post-opioid-epidemic than we did before, it would not make sense to prosecute doctors based on a new standard of care. Hence, culpable negligence lawsuits against doctors involving opioids are required to prove the doctor knew the prescription would be misused or abused.

The decision is a lifeline to what prosecutors call a “small group of doctors who dispensed with their hearts and not with their minds”. In other words, it wouldn’t affect doctors who were convicted of accepting money to write fraudulent prescriptions or received kickbacks for prescriptions. It will help doctors whose standards of care were not in line with the new standards of care.

Talk to a Florida Opioid Defense Lawyer Today 

Facing criminal or civil charges related to prescribing opioids? Call the Tampa criminal lawyers at Trombley & Hanes today to schedule an appointment and learn more about how we can help.