How Do Medication Errors Occur and Who Is Liable?

One of the leading causes of death in the United States is medical malpractice. Many of these injuries are the result of medication errors, which can have devastating effects on patients and their families.

Types of Medication Errors

Medication mistakes may be made when data does not match a patient. Two patients’ records can be mixed up. When height and weight do not match the right dosage, an overdose may occur or not enough medication runs through the body for the condition to be fully treated. Clerical, handwriting and malfunctioning equipment issues and errors may also cause these mistakes. Another possible factor may be mislabeled pill bottles. Incorrect dosage may be a minimal problem when the medication is minor, but when the condition is severe the medication may be lifesaving or life-threatening. Though these incidences may affect an individual, they are compounded when affecting groups of people.


Some drugs are harmful to specific people or everyone in general. The prescriptions that may cause a reaction should be avoided for treatment unless a waiver or permission has been documented by the patient. It is important to ensure the drug administered will not have any adverse reactions with the patient. Allergies should be well documented and taken into account when applying any treatment. If one drug is required to ensure a reaction is not present for another, it is vital medical professionals both at the healthcare facility and the pharmacy explain in detail these procedures to any individual taking these prescriptions. Without this knowledge, the patient may not be able to provide the necessary informed consent for the healthcare provider to avoid a negligence claim.

Potential Defendants

Medical professionals and experts including doctors, nurses and staff are required to provide proper care and must follow rules and regulations that minimize these types of accidents. When this proper care is not followed, legal issues may arise. Some may stem from negligence or criminal behavior. When the problem rises to the level of medical malpractice, liability may lie with the healthcare professional taking care of the patient. When medical negligence causes damages, the victim or his or her family may be able to seek compensation.

Determining Liability

Normally, a patient may interact with a number of healthcare providers, ranging from nurses to doctors and pharmacists. When a medication mistake is made, the factors that contributed to the mistake may be analyzed to determine who should be held liable. Errors or mistakes may arise at any point during a patient’s treatment. If the wrong prescription is prescribed, this may be the fault of a doctor who did not take into consideration other medicines the patient was taking, a nurse who wrote down the wrong information or the pharmacist who mixed up the order. If the issue involves an incorrect dosage, liability may lie with the doctor who prescribed the dosage or the pharmacist who did not prescribe the proper dosage. During the course of treatment, a doctor should monitor the responsiveness to whatever drug have been administered. Failure to do so may result in a negligence action.


The person or persons responsible for the medication mistake may be required to compensate the patient for the damages that he or she sustained. In minor cases, this may include payment for the medication that he or she should have been prescribed and damages for his or her pain and suffering. If the mediation error resulted in a serious injury, the healthcare provider may be required to compensate the patient for additional treatments that he or she had to undergo due to the medication error. He or she may also be responsible for compensating the patient for any time off work that was necessary because of the error. If the case proceeds to court, a jury may also be able to award punitive damages which are damages that are intended to help deter similar conduct in the future. These damages are usually only awarded in cases involving egregious misconduct.

Proof of Liability

If the plaintiff brings forth a legal claim, he or she has the burden of showing that the healthcare provider is liable. This usually requires showing that the medical professional did not follow procedure, observe guidelines or was negligent in due care. A careful review of the medical documents in the case may help shed light on what went wrong. A medical expert may be necessary to establish what the proper procedure was and how it was not followed in the particular case.

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Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication at the time it was written. It is not intended to provide legal advice or suggest a guaranteed outcome as individual situations will differ and the law may have changed since publication. Readers considering legal action should consult with an experienced lawyer to understand current laws they may affect a case.

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