Drug abuse poses a load of liability problems

Drug abuse poses a load of liability problems

An insiders test about legal ramifications of drug abuse in the workplace
Jun 01, 2011
By dvm360.com staff

After a recent talk I gave in Las Vegas, a veterinarian came up to the podium and told me she'd been considering applying to law school. She wanted to know more about the experience. That started me thinking about the differences between law school and vet school.

One big shock I got when I started law school was that it's not uncommon to have a single examination for a whole courseā€”a final test covering an entire semester of material. More upsetting was that at my alma mater, the exams were given after the Christmas break, so that students could spend the holiday season panicking instead of reveling.

At any rate, for the pleasure and amusement of the veterinarian/reader, I have framed the topic of this month's column in the form of a typical law school final-exam question:

And ... you may begin the test

Amy is a licensed veterinary technician who works at the New York City veterinary practice belonging to Long Island resident Dr. Bill. The name of the practice is Blackacre Vet Hospital P.C. (All real estate in law school carries the name Blackacre for a reason that is still a mystery to me after 30 years.) Dr. Carl, one of the associate veterinarians, has been stealing a controlled substance from the drug locker for several months.

Don, another technician, is responsible for carrying out a controlled drug inventory each month. Don has felt overworked lately and consequently has fudged the inventory, simply writing numbers on the log to look like the medication was counted. (Coincidentally, Don is a high-school dropout who created his technician credentials on a laser printer.)

Amy, a bright-eyed girl, saw Dr. Carl's drug thefts and once reported them to the owner, Dr. Bill. Bill thinks she's lying because Dr. Carl treats her poorly when he is in a bad mood.

Last week, Dr. Carl, while extremely high on the stolen drugs, seriously injured Eve in an automobile accident. Eve's attorney sues Amy, Bill, Don, Blackacre Vet P.C. and the estate of Dr. Carl (who died in the crash) for negligence. The United States Drug Enforcement Administration begins an investigation as the civil case proceeds.

Student: Write an essay explaining the rights and liability of all the parties, making reference to any applicable statutory law and relevant cases. And would the outcome of the suit against Dr. Carl's estate be different if Dr. Carl's wife were not un undocumented alien from Panama?

Doctors, aren't you pleased you decided to study science instead of law? Well, let's have a peek at this exact fact pattern and the pertinent rights and liabilities associated with drug abuse involving the veterinary workplace.

Danger of drugs at work

Drug theft and abuse are real dangers in the medical workplace. Even huge hospital chains have difficulty managing the behavior of their staffs when it comes to controlled drugs, and they have very sophisticated bar-code tracking systems to monitor product use. Nonetheless, the difficulty of monitoring staff and medication is no defense when a lapse of vigilance results in unaccounted for medication or worse, harm to or death of a person.

In the example scenario above, ultimate liability for the injuries attributable to the controlled substances purchased under Dr. Bill's DEA number resides with Dr. Bill. The medication became available to endanger a member of the public only through Bill's right to order and subsequent failure to reasonably control its disposition. What exactly does "reasonable" control mean? How could it be Dr. Bill's fault that the medication left the building unaccounted for?