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LOWRY: Opioid abuse poses rising danger

  • Stephen G. Lowry
In September of 2010, a police chief in Climax, Ga., stopped to assist a stranded motorist in an out-of-gas Ford Expedition. 
 
A northbound driver — who testified under oath in a deposition and during a trial that he routinely took high doses of prescription painkillers like OxyContin and RoxyCodone as well as antianxiety medication and muscle relaxers — crashed into the police chief’s vehicle, causing serious injuries that required the law enforcement officer to undergo multiple surgeries. A jury in South Georgia recently awarded $40 million to the police chief and his wife for injuries suffered in the disabling crash. 
 
This roadside tragedy is one of a growing number of incidents caused by individuals operating vehicles under the influence of prescription painkillers known as opioids. Opioids are a class of drugs including prescription pain relievers like oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine and fentanyl, as well as illegal drugs like heroin. By definition, these substances are all chemically related, affecting special receptors located within the brain and nervous system. 
 
Although opioids are highly addictive, they translate into big business for pharmaceutical companies. Some drug manufacturers even offer free trials, designed to encourage patients to get “hooked” on these medications. 
 
The New York Times recently reported that, as the popularity of doctor-prescribed opioids surged, annual sales spiked from $1 billion in 1992 to nearly $10 billion in 2015. In the 21 years since it first came on the market, OxyContin alone has generated more than $35 billion in sales. 
 
Prince’s recent death, which has been linked to opioid abuse, drew international attention to the inherent danger of prescription painkillers, which, when taken in high doses or in combination with other medications, can slow respiration and heart function, causing death. Every day, according to the Center for Disease Control, 78 Americans die from an opioid overdose. Since 1999, the rate of overdose deaths linked to prescription painkillers has nearly quadrupled. 
 
The CDC recently reported that more people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than any other year on record. In the U.S., more than six out of every 10 drug overdose deaths involve opioids. Dr. David Kessler, the head of the Food and Drug Administration from 1990 to 1997, recently described America’s opioid epidemic as “one of the great mistakes of modern medicine.”
 
As individuals use opioids over time, they develop a higher tolerance. However, doctors are currently under increased scrutiny for prescribing oxycodone and other painkillers. Because the federal government is clamping down on opioid prescriptions, many patients are turning to the black market, switching from legal drugs to cheaper and riskier substitutes like heroin, which have the same biochemical effect on the brain.
 
Due to the high risk of overdose, physicians are being warned to avoid prescribing opiates in conjunction with benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax. Doctors are also being advised to prescribe immediate-release opiates, rather than extended-relief formulas that are more likely to be abused by patients who grind, snort, smoke or inject the tablets to maximize their intoxicating effect.
 
As opioid addiction reaches epidemic proportions in the U.S., the potential for motorists like the driver in Climax, Ga., to injure others through catastrophic acts of negligence is on the rise. When individuals under the influence of opioids operate a car, bike, motorcycle, taxi, bus, tractor-trailer, train, boat or airplane, they put others at risk.
 
If you or a loved one has experienced an injury due to the actions of someone under the influence of opioids — or if you have suffered injury due to opioid use or abuse — you may have legal recourse and the ability to collect damages, including compensation for pain and suffering. Consult with an attorney who specializes in personal injury cases in order to determine the best course of action for your unique situation.
 
Stephen G. Lowry is a partner with the law firm of Harris Penn Lowry LLP who has handled numerous personal injury claims. He can be reached at steve@hpllegal.com, 912-651-9967 or www.hpllegal.com. 

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