Walgreens must pay $31 million to the loved ones of a 79-year-old Schaumburg man who died after being given the wrong prescription from a drug-using pharmacist.
Leonard Kulisek slipped into a coma a day after taking the wrong medication and suffered through a series of illnesses over the next 22 months before he died.
Pharmacist James Wilmes admitted he’d been popping OxyContin and hydrocodone for eight years, stealing the pills from the Walgreens stock he managed, and jurors said they believe he was under the influence on the day he gave Kulisek the wrong medication.
Kulisek had a history of health problems but hadn’t suffered any major illnesses in the years just before the mistake. He also suffered a stroke before his November 2002 death.
Kulisek was supposed to get a pill for gout, but Wilmes instead gave him an insulin pill that dropped his blood-sugar levels dramatically, putting him into a coma and causing him kidney troubles.
Kulisek filed his lawsuit while he was still alive.
“Walgreens tells you they’re the pharmacy America trusts,” said Kulisek’s attorney, David Axelrod. “But you really can’t trust them.”
Jurors said they believed Kulisek’s deteriorating health was caused by the wrong prescription and contributed to his death, saying Walgreens’ failure to catch Wilmes’ thefts and signs of addiction played a role in their verdict.
Wilmes admitted he stole 86,000 pills in his career.
“The only way we could hope to change the system in the future was to hurt them financially,” said jury forewoman Lisa Barrington, of Chicago, adding that it appeared “every manager in every Walgreens in the United States can have a free-for-all.”
Juror McArthur Taylor, of Harvey, said, “I didn’t expect that out of Walgreens. We wanted to send them a strong message because it could happen to any one of us.”
Barrington disclosed that during the two-week trial, a “significant other” of one juror had been given the wrong prescription at a Walgreens, though the mixup was caught without incident and jurors didn’t know about it until after they had reached a verdict.
Attorneys were unaware of that incident.
Kulisek, retired from International Harvester, was a volunteer tutor at Churchill Elementary School and though he never married, he was taken in by a Schaumburg family, with whom he lived.
“He was like a doting father,” said Richard Marston, whose family enjoyed a 35-year relationship with Kulisek.
Marston and his daughters, Megan, 18, and Chloe, 15, were named sole beneficiaries of Kulisek’s estate.
“He was a guy who bothered to be a person,” Marston said.
Walgreens attorney Tom Andrews declined comment but company spokesman Michael Polzin said the company plans to appeal the decision.
“We regret that this error happened, however we disagree with the jury’s verdict in every respect,” he said.
Wilmes, not in court for the verdict, went through drug rehabilitation and continues to dispense medication on a probationary license, though he was fired by Walgreens.
Marston said he knows the family has a long road ahead before they’ll recover the damages awarded but said there is vindication in the verdict.
“All the things we cried about,” he said. “We just couldn’t believe . . . why this could happen to him. . . . I’m very grateful.”