Criminal Charges Against Doctors Accused in the Deaths of Patients Due to Overprescribing Are Being Reduced Due to Supreme Court Decision

April 29, 2014

medicalIn January 2014, the United States Supreme Court decided Burrage v. United States. According to the ruling, prosecutors must prove that drug dealers are responsible for a death by showing the drug provided was the sole cause of death. Since the Supreme Court’s decision, prosecutors across the country are scaling back criminal charges against doctors accused in the deaths of patients due to overprescribing. This new standard makes it difficult to prosecute people in fatal drug overdoses, no matter if it is a drug dealer or doctor.

Background of Burrage v. United States

The Supreme Court case, Burrage v. United States, originated in Iowa. The case involved allegations that the defendant Marcus Andrew Burrage sold heroin to a man who ultimately died after binging for two days on a mix of drugs. The trial judge refused to dismiss the case after experts testified that the heroin contributed to the death. However, the Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors were required under the law to prove that the heroin Burrage supplied was the exact and only cause of death.

Click here to read the Supreme Court’s decision in Burrage v. United States.

This Supreme Court decision is forcing prosecutors to reexamine their cases seeking homicide/manslaughter convictions against physicians and street drug dealers.

Supreme Court Decision Causes Reduction of Charges for Boston Doctor.

In April 2014, federal prosecutors in Boston were forced to scale back criminal charges against a doctor they accused of causing the deaths of six of his patients by recklessly prescribing narcotic medications. Prosecutors are still looking to charge the doctor with conspiracy and drug dealing, but will not longer seek “cause of death” charges. The drug dealing counts carry a punishment of up to 20 years.

Can’t Count on Supreme Court’s Decision to Get Physician Clients Off the Hook.

In another recent case, a New York doctor faces manslaughter charges in the deaths of two of his patients, plus reckless endangerment charges in connection with two other deaths and several other patients who survived. This case began on April 2, 2014, and is believed to be the first in New York against a doctor in an overdose death.

This case illustrates the prescription drug overdose epidemic nationwide. Some attorneys see that and are trying to hold physicians liable for alleged negligence. Law enforcement officials around the country are using criminal laws to pursue doctors suspected of acting as drug dealers with prescription pads.

As a health law attorney, don’t count on the Supreme Court’s decision to lessen a charge against a physician accused of overprescribing. If your physician client is accused of overprescribing to a patient who dies, your client can still get charged with manslaughter. Burrage appears to have left the door open for “cause of death” charges when the sole contributing drug or drugs were prescribed by a physician. The reduction of charges in the Boston case may have been a stroke of luck for the charged physician because the deceased patient was using drugs prescribed by multiple physicians and/or other street drugs.


What do you think if the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Burrage v. United States? Do you think it will have any impact on cases of doctors accused of overprescribing? Please leave any thoughtful comments below.