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Jury awards $17.6 million in opioid case

A St. Louis jury awarded $17.6 million in a medical malpractice case involving opioid over-prescription.

Tim Cronin, of the Simon Law Firm which represented the plaintiff, said he thinks the most important evidence to the jury was the “colossal amounts of doses of opioid our client was given,” which were undisputed in the case.

Henry D. Walden, the primary care doctor for plaintiff Brian Koon, prescribed Koon opioids for about four and a half years, from February 2008 until August or September of 2012, to treat back pain, Cronin said. Walden prescribed OxyContin, oxycodone, and Vicodin to Koon.

During that period, the dose escalated from 10 to 20 milligrams a day to an average of 1,500 milligrams a day.

To put that number into perspective for the jury, the plaintiff’s attorneys presented jurors with guidelines from states across the country, some in place before 2008, which say opioid prescriptions for non-cancer pain shouldn’t go over the threshold of 100 milligrams and shouldn’t exceed 90 days.

“I think the thing that helped back up our position about dosage guidelines most was a letter that was written by one of the defendant’s own experts,” Cronin said.

The expert was part of a group of physicians that was “trying to implore the FDA” to tell doctors not to exceed the 100 milligram or 90-day guidelines, he explained.

In Koon’s case, the high prescriptions had a traumatic effect on his life, his wife’s life and his relationship with his daughter, Cronin said.

His addiction really started to take control around the same time his daughter was born.

“He doesn’t remember a lot of his daughter’s first three years of her life,” Cronin said. “He barely remembers her birth, he doesn’t remember her baptism, he doesn’t remember her first steps.”

At one point, Koon came close to committing suicide. Soon after that he decided to get off of opioids and checked into a rehab facility.

“He wasn’t getting help from his doctor to get off them,” Cronin said.

Koon got clean and has successfully avoided abusing pills again, but he and his wife ended up separating Cronin said. He has had four back surgeries to help resolve his pain.

The jury awarded his wife $1.2 million in the verdict and Koon $1.4 million. They also awarded an additional $15 million in punitive damages against Walden and his employer, Saint Louis University.

Walden’s attorney, Paul Venker, did not respond to a request for comment.

Clayton Berry, a spokesman at SLU, provided a statement from the university.

“The health and well-being of our patients is always our highest priority, and our physicians are deeply committed to providing compassionate, quality care. We are very disappointed in the verdict in this case, and we will pursue all avenues for review of the decision,” the statement said.

Aside from a large verdict, Cronin said the trial was important because “we are in the middle of a prescription opioid epidemic.”

“It is a major problem in our country that something needs to be done about,” he said.

The high amount Walden prescribed Koon is rare, but Cronin said it isn’t rare for doctors to keep prescribing patients opioids for a long time, much longer than the recommended 90 days.

He said he hopes the verdict calls the medical community’s attention to the dangers of prescription opioids.

“We can start to make some progress in using these dangerous narcotics more sparingly,” he said.

$17.6 Million Verdict

Medical malpractice

Venue: St. Louis City

Case Number/Date: 1422-CC01258/ June 28, 2016

Judge: Michael Noble

Plaintiff’s Experts: Dr. Paul Genecin, Yale School of Medicine (internal medicine); Dr. Mary Fitzgibbons, St. Louis (psychology)

Defendant’s Experts: Dr. Anthony Guarino, St. Louis (pain management); Dr. Erik Gunderson (addiction)

Insurer: Some excess coverage available through Endurance American Specialty Insurance Company

Caption: Brian Koon, Michelle Koon v. Henry Walden, Tenet Health Systems, Saint Louis University

Plaintiff’s Attorneys: Tim Cronin, John G. Simon, The Simon Law Firm, St. Louis

Defendant’s Attorneys: Paul Venker, John Mahon, Michael Barth, Williams Venker & Sanders, St. Louis

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