The Case of Prince – A Look at Wrongful Death
Just two years ago, the Quad Cities made national headlines when the late performing artist Prince was admitted to Unity Point Health – Trinity Medical Center in Moline on April 15, 2016 for treatment from an opioid overdose while flying home from a concert. Tragically, Prince died a week later on April 21st in Minneapolis as a result of an overdose of fentanyl. In late April, the AP reported that Prince’s heirs have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Trinity Medical Center and Walgreen’s, alleging that a doctor and pharmacists failed to provide appropriate treatment, contributing to the death of the pop singer. See what Attorney Dennis VanDerGinst has to say about this controversial Wrongful Death case in this installment of “Legal News.”
“In order to win a wrongful death lawsuit, the attorney must prove that the defendants’ conduct, in this case, the actions of Trinity Medical Center doctors and pharmacists as well as the pharmacists at Walgreen’s, was the cause of Prince’s death and that his death would not have occurred without the actions of the defendant,” says VanDerGinst.
Interestingly enough, even though Prince died six days later, the time between the defendants’ actions and the death of the decedent is not a factor as long as it can be proven that the defendant’s actions ultimately contributed to his death.
VanDerGinst speculates that the defendants’ counsel will likely argue that Prince himself and/or the dealer of the illicit drug is responsible for his death. However, the AP reports that authorities believe Prince may not have known he was actually taking the powerful drug fentanyl, but rather that he was given counterfeit pills he thought were Vicodin. Medical documents show a pill Prince had with him when he was admitted to the Moline hospital that was marked as Vicodin was sent off for testing and was thought to be Vicodin by the hospital pharmacist. The pill was returned to Prince. But prosecutors allege no chemical testing was done and this pill was likely fentanyl. As a result, the suit holds the emergency room physician and hospital pharmacist responsible for failing to properly diagnose and treat Prince’s overdose. Walgreen’s is being accused of dispensing oxycodone medication to Prince with prescriptions written not under his own name but that of his bodyguard.
“From a legal perspective, there are a lot of dots to connect,” notes VanDerGinst. “For starters, the law in Illinois requires that a malpractice case cannot be filed unless an affidavit accompanies the complaint that indicates a qualified medical expert has reviewed the case and determined a viable cause of action exists. This particular complaint requests a 90-day extension to produce the requisite affidavit, an exception the law allows if a qualified medical expert has not yet reviewed the case but the statute of limitations is approaching to file.”
Is the lack of an affidavit telling? Maybe so, according to VanDerGinst. “It could mean absolutely nothing, or it could indicate the plaintiffs are having trouble locating an expert to give such an opinion,” he says. “If they indeed are able to produce an affidavit within the extended time frame, the case will have met the initial burden of stating a cause of action and will then proceed through the discovery phase.”
In discovery, both sides will have the opportunity to exchange written interrogatories and requests for production, as well as dispose crucial witnesses. “Often, cases like these become a battle between the experts,” VanDerGinst observes. “One could argue that because Prince refused testing on himself at the hospital, the emergency room physician did not have access to the full picture of his health in order to properly diagnose and treat him. Furthermore, the death itself took place as a result of a separate overdose incident other than the one he was treated for while in the care of Quad Cities doctors. The law tells us that if it can be shown that the decedent was partially responsible for his or her death, then he or she may be found to have comparative or contributory negligence and may be awarded only partial damages. Or if it can be argued that Prince failed to seek appropriate medical care by virtue of refusing testing, there may be no grounds at all for the claim.”
VanDerGinst points out that should the case reach the trial phase, plaintiffs often face a significant burden in overcoming jury bias in favor of treatment providers. “Perhaps this explains why the plaintiffs chose to file in Cook County as opposed to Rock Island County, where the former’s guilty verdicts are significantly higher than the latter’s, and the risk of local bias toward resident defendants would be lessened,” he says.
If Prince’s wrongful death counsel can successfully place blame on Trinity Medical Center and Walgreen’s, the amount of damages awarded could be astounding, given the loss of future income Prince likely could have earned as a once active and well-loved superstar performer. “Given that the suit was filed at the 11th hour, this is usually an indication that the plaintiffs might face an uphill battle proving medical malpractice and wrongful death,” VanDerGinst notes. “This will indeed be an interesting case to follow.”