September 30, 2006, 7:26 AM CDT
CHICAGO — A Cook County jury says Walgreens must pay $31 million in damages for the death of a 79-year-old man whose health went into irreversible decline after he was given the wrong prescription by a drug-abusing pharmacist early in 2001.
“The only way we could hope to change the system in the future was to hurt them financially,” said jury forewoman Lisa Barrington after the verdict was announced Friday.
According to testimony in the two-week trial, Leonard Kulisek of Schaumburg had telephoned for a refill of his gout medication, but pharmacist James Wilmes instead gave him the diabetes drug Glipizide, which caused his blood sugar level to plummet, putting him into a coma within two days and damaging his kidneys.
Kulisek had to start dialysis, which he continued for the rest of his life. Months later, he had a stroke and his health continued to spiral downward until he made the decision to stop dialysis and die in November of 2002.
Wilmes later admitted that he was addicted to the prescription painkillers Oxycontin and hydrocone, which he had been stealing from the Walgreens stock he managed. According to a statement he signed when he was fired, Wilmes admitted to stealing 86,000 pills over an eight-year period.
Walgreens attorney Tom Andrews acknowledged that Wilmes had made an error, but maintained that medical records showed Kulisek already had kidney problems before the incident and therefore the company wasn’t responsible for all of his medical bills or a large damage award.
But David Axelrod, attorney Kulisek’s estate, conceded Kulisek had mild kidney problems but said “Glipizide was the bullet that sent Len Kulisek downhill.”
Andrews declined comment after the verdict was announced, but company spokesman Michael Polzin said the company plans to appeal the decision.
“We regret that this error ever happened,” Polzin said. “However, we disagree with the jury’s verdict in every respect.”
One possible ground for appeal may come from a revelation Barrington made in speaking to reporters after the verdict. She said one of the other jurors had a friend who received the wrong medication from another Walgreens while the trial was going on. The friend didn’t take the medicine, Barrington said, so no harm was done.
Barrington declined to name the juror but noted that the juror hadn’t shared that information with other jurors until after the verdict.
Attorneys, though, often argue that a juror with a similar experience as a party in the case may be biased.
Neither attorney in the case appeared to know about that personal experience, which was not revealed during the course of the trial.
Kulisek filed the lawsuit before he died.
The retired International Harvester worker, who never married, lived with a longtime friend, Richard Marston and his children. While Marston is the sole beneficiary of Kulisek’s will, he said his two daughters will benefit, too.
Wilmes, who was not in court Friday, went through drug rehabilitation after his firing and continues to dispense medicine in Illinois on a probationary license.
Copyright © 2006, The Associated Press