Law & Medicine

Negligent use of steroids


Question: Mr. M, a car mechanic, was treated with long-term ACTH and Kenalog after he developed severe contact dermatitis from daily exposure to petroleum-based solvents. His subsequent course was complicated by cataracts and osteoporosis. Which of the following is true in case he files a malpractice action?

A. Treatment with steroids was medically indicated for Mr. Mechanic’s dermatologic condition, so the doctor could not have breached the standard of care.

B. Under the “Learned Intermediary” doctrine, both the manufacturer and the prescribing doctor are jointly liable.

C. Corticosteroids are a known cause of osteoporosis and other complications, but not of cataracts, so that part of the malpractice action should be thrown out.

D. The plaintiff would prevail even if he could not find an expert witnesses to testify as to standard of care, since it is “common knowledge” that steroids cause osteoporosis.

E. Lack of informed consent may be his best legal theory of liability, as many jurisdictions now use the patient-centered standard, which does not require expert testimony.

Answer: E. The above hypothetical was modified from an old Montana case1 in which the patient failed in his negligence lawsuit because he did not have expert witnesses to testify as to standard of care and to adequacy of warning label. However, in some jurisdictions under today’s case law, informed consent relies on a subjective, i.e., patient-oriented standard, and expert testimony is unnecessary to prove breach of duty, although still needed to prove causation.

Steroid-related litigation

Steroid-related malpractice litigation is quite prevalent. In a retrospective study of a tertiary medical center from 1996 to 2008, Nash and coworkers identified 83 such cases.2 Steroids were prescribed for pain (23%), asthma or another pulmonary condition (20%), a dermatologic condition (18%), an autoimmune condition (17%), or allergies (6%).

Dr. S.Y. Tan, emeritus professor of medicine and former adjunct professor of law at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu

Dr. S.Y. Tan

Complications reported were often multiple and included avascular necrosis (39%), mood changes (16%), visual complaints (14%), and infections. The study population was in-hospital rather than office-based, and the plaintiffs’ allegations were based on negligence and lack of informed consent. Trial verdict was for the defendant 59% of the time, whereas 24 cases (29%) were found for the plaintiff. Ten cases (12%) settled out of court. The range of monetary awards was from $25,000 to $8.1 million.

Learned intermediary

“Drug reps” have a responsibility to inform doctors of both benefits and risks of their medications, a process termed “fair balance.” Generally speaking, if a doctor fails to warn the patient of a medication risk, and injury results, the patient may have a claim against the doctor but not the drug manufacturer. This is termed the “learned intermediary” doctrine, which is also applicable to medical devices such as dialysis equipment, breast implants, and blood products.

The justification is that manufacturers can reasonably rely on the treating doctor to warn of adverse effects, which are disclosed to the profession through their sales reps and in the package insert and PDR. The treating doctor, in turn, is expected to use his or her professional judgment to adequately warn the patient. It is simply not feasible for the manufacturer to directly warn every patient without usurping the doctor-patient relationship. However, where known complications were undisclosed to the FDA and the profession, then plaintiff attorneys can file class action lawsuits directed at the manufacturer.


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