Drug overdoses are epidemic. Increasingly, prosecutors are responding by filing criminal charges. Recently, charges were filed in Jefferson County, West Virginia after the death from a drug overdose. Similar prosecutions and policies in favor or prosecuting drug dealers have been conducted in Virginia.
Losing a loved one over a drug overdose is a terrible, tragic loss. Friends and family members are filled with grief and sadness. Often, we are also filled with unanswered questions and unmet needs. Those questions can swirl around and torment the survivors. How could this happen? Why did it happen? Couldn’t anyone do some something to prevent it? How can I help anyone else from suffering from this horrible thing happening to them?
The family may have many unmet needs, including financial needs such as payment for outstanding medical bills, funeral and burial expenses, and counseling expenses for the survivors. While the financial needs are not paramount, they may lead to further stress, anger and frustration.
What are the “rights” of the survivors that may help meet these needs?
West Virginia, unlike many states, does not include a constitutional provision providing rights to victims, but in the 1980’s passed a statute granting crime victims certain rights.
Virginia has passed a constitutional amendment granting crime victims certain rights including a potential reimbursement of expenses through the crime victim’s fund.
Maryland and DC also have very specific rights granted to crime victims. The DC provisions are statutory and include a specific DC Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights. Maryland law includes a group of statutory rights for victims.
However, law enforcement officials may not charge distributors with a crime. Funds for out of pocket expenses may be still be obtained from the crime victim funds. Most crime victim laws provide the victim’s family an opportunity to both apply for funds even when there is no prosecution or conviction. Families may also meet with law enforcement or prosecuting attorneys to ask questions and determine why no formal charges were filed.
The following questions are those that many victims have asked me over the last several years.
What types of criminal charges are possible or have been filed?
In some situations, the drug dealer who provides an illegal drug that results in an overdose can be held criminally responsible. The charges range from the illegal distribution of the drug to voluntary manslaughter to second degree murder.
What if the drugs are prescribed by a physician?
I’ve heard that my county sued the drug companies. Is that true?
In West Virginia, county councils have initiated litigation against both pharmaceutical companies seeking damages for the opioid crisis. These cases are similar to class actions and seek damages for what the crisis has caused to our communities.
Perhaps all of this court involvement may be confusing. These statutes and constitutional provisions, as well as the potential fo civil litigation may help you get some answers and try to Contact my office if you have questions about cases in West Virginia or DC. We have represented many victims, including the family members of drug overdose victims, in trying to find answers and get their bills paid. In most situations in West Virginia, you will not be required to pay any attorney fees unless there is a civil recovery. If you are in Virginia, contact your county Commonwealth Attorney's office to have your questions answered. If you are in Maryland, you may be eligible for a free lawyer.