Law & Medicine

Negligent use of steroids



Complications arising out of the use of steroids are typical examples of medical products liability. This may be on the basis of the doctor having prescribed the medication without a proper indication or where contraindicated, or may have prescribed “the wrong dose for the wrong patient by the wrong route.” In addition, there may have been a lack of informed consent, i.e., failure to explain the underlying condition and the material risks associated with using the drug. Other acts of negligence, e.g., vicarious liability, may also apply.

Corticosteroids such as Prednisone, Decadron, Kenalog, etc., are widely prescribed, and can cause serious complications, especially when used in high doses for extended periods. Examples include suppression of the immune system with supervening infections, steroid osteoporosis and fractures,3 aseptic necrosis, steroid diabetes, hypertension, emotional changes, weight gain, cataracts, neurological complications, and many others. As in all malpractice actions, the plaintiff bears the burden of proof covering the four requisite tort elements, i.e., duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages. Expert testimony is almost always needed in a professional negligence lawsuit.

Aseptic necrosis is a feared complication of steroid therapy.

A recent report4 featured a nurse in her 40s who developed aseptic necrosis of the right shoulder and both hips after taking high dose prednisone for 6 months. She was being treated for idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura by a hematologist as well as sarcoidosis by a pulmonologist. The plaintiff claimed that both defendants negligently prescribed the medication for an extended period of time without proper monitoring, which caused her severe bone complications requiring a hip and shoulder replacement. The defendants maintained that the steroid medication was necessary to treat the life-threatening conditions from which the plaintiff suffered and that the dosage was carefully monitored and was not excessive. However, in a jury trial, the defendant hematologist and pulmonologist were each found 50% negligent, and the patient was awarded $4.1 million in damages.

In a case5 of steroid-related neurological sequelae, a Colorado jury awarded $14.9 million to a couple against an outpatient surgery center for negligently administering an epidural dose of Kenalog that rendered the patient paraplegic, and for failure to obtain informed consent. The jury awarded the woman, age 57, approximately $1.7 million in past and future medical expenses; $3.2 million in unspecified economic damages; and $6.5 million in past and future noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering. Her husband will receive $3.5 million in past and future noneconomic damages for loss of consortium, according to the verdict. Two years before the injection date of 2013, the drug maker had announced that Kenalog should not be used for epidural procedures because of cord complications including infarction and paraplegia.

Contributory role

The putative offending drug does not have to be the sole cause of injury; if it played a contributory role, the court may find the presence of liability. For example, a Kansas appeals court6 upheld a jury award of $2.88 million in the case of a 40-year-old man who took his life after neurologic complications followed an epidural injection. During one of patient’s visits for chronic low back pain, the defendant-anesthesiologist administered an epidural steroid injection into an area left swollen from a previous injection.

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