Supreme Court Dismisses Negligence Suit Against Pharmacy for Overdose Death
Civil Litigation Update, a publication of the Pennsylvania Bar Association
In Albert v. Sheeley’s Drug Store, Inc., 265 A.3d 442 (PA 2021) (Opinion by Wecht, J.) the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled that claims brought against a pharmacy on behalf of a decedent who overdosed on illegally obtained prescription drugs are barred by the doctrine of in pari delicto.
In 2015, two troubled youths, referred to herein as CA and ZR, were in search of drugs to support their respective addictions. ZR’s mother was prescribed opioids as part of her cancer treatments. ZR’s sister informed their mother’s pharmacy, Sheeley’s Drug Store, that the prescriptions should only be given to her mother or her
ZR later called Sheeley’s and pretended to be his mother. An employee of Sheeley’s advised ZR that his mother’s prescription fentanyl patches were ready to be picked up. ZR, still pretending to be his mother, told the employee that her son would pick up the fentanyl patches.
ZR successfully obtained the fentanyl patches from Sheeley’s with CA’s assistance, and both youths consumed some of the fentanyl. Unfortunately, the dose of fentanyl ingested by CA proved fatal.
The decedent’s estate (“Albert”) filed a negligence suit against Sheeley’s, alleging that Sheeley’s negligently allowed ZR to pick up his mother’s fentanyl prescription. Sheeley’s sought summary judgment, arguing that Albert’s suit was barred by the in pari delicto doctrine.
The trial court granted Sheeley’s motion for summary judgment. Albert appealed to the Superior Court, which affirmed. Albert then appealed to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
The Supreme Court first explained that the in pari delicto doctrine precludes plaintiffs from recovering damages if their cause of action is based at least partially on their own illegal conduct. Albert argued that the trial court had no basis to conclude at the summary judgment stage that CA was an active participant in ZR’s scheme to obtain prescription drugs from Sheeley’s. The court rejected this argument, and found that undisputed evidence demonstrated that CA and ZR jointly attempted to obtain opiates in the days and hours before CA’s death.
The court held that since CA committed a crime that directly caused his death, by possessing and ingesting a controlled substance not prescribed to him, the trial court correctly applied the in pari delicto doctrine.
Albert next asserted that illegal possession of a controlled substance is not the sort of crime for which the in pari delicto doctrine was intended to bar recovery. The court explained that under Pennsylvania law, courts must consider 1) the extent of the plaintiff’s wrongdoing vis-à-vis the defendant and 2) the connection between the plaintiff’s wrongdoing and the claims asserted.
The court reasoned that in this case, CA’s criminal conduct directly resulted in his death, while Sheeley’s conduct — dispensing a controlled substance to ZR — was several links removed in the chain of causation.
Finally, Albert claimed that the Superior Court’s decision conflicts with comparative negligence principles. In rejecting this claim, the court explained that while comparative negligence principles apply whenever a plaintiff is contributorily negligent, in pari delicto is relevant in cases involving intentional wrongdoing on the part of the plaintiff. The court concluded that the in pari delicto doctrine is not intended to punish Albert or to reward Sheeley’s. Rather, the rule exists because holding otherwise would force courts to condone and perhaps even encourage criminal conduct, thus diminishing the public’s perception of the legal system.