Victims Rights when a Loved one Dies of a Drug Overdose

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?

Increasingly, physicians are held responsible by the courts, particularly civilly,  for overprescribing pain medications.  Recently CNN published a story summarizing those legal actions. 

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.  




Today’s blog post is another in the series recognizing April as National Crime Victim’s Rights Month. In today’s post I will address five things that every victim should know:

  • Medical bills can be paid by the crime victim’s fund in most states.
  • The prosecutor is not the victim’s lawyer.
  • Most cases do not go to trial.
  • Restorative Justice may provide you with more options than the conventional judicial system.
  • When an offender is incarcerated you should sign up for a notification if he or she is released.

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Last week I enjoyed visiting the Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky where I participated in a discussion about Appalachian cultural values and legal institutions. Typically when I participate in any discussion about legal institutions, issues arise pertaining to an increasing dependence in the United States on legal institutions to resolve broad categories of conflicts. This discussion was no exception. We considered issues related to resolving social problems and addiction through the criminal judicial processes.

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Mediation has not historically occurred in criminal cases or quasi-criminal cases in the United States.  However, in the late 20th century, processes similar to mediation became employed in some cases.  These processes resemble mediation because they are usually voluntary, inclusive, informal, and allow for a more expansive list of options to resolve the underlying problems.  While mediation is almost always beneficial in civil cases, criminal cases must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine if they are suitable for these processes.

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Victims are often overwhelmed following a crime.  Victims may be faced with a lot of questions and not many answers.  How will my bills get paid?  Do I have to attend the court hearing?  Who will represent me?  What if I don't want the case to be prosecuted?  Our office accepts cases in West Virginia, the District of Columbia and Maryland and can help victims find some of these answers.  Brenda has worked as a prosecutor, defense counsel and holds a master's degree with an emphasis in Restorative Justice.  

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I am on my way to Morgantown to attend a symposium focusing on Prisons in Appalachia.  I will be joining a fabulous roundtable discussion on Restorative Justice and Alternative Sentencing tomorrow morning featuring Judge Michael Aloi, Jacqueline Roebuck Sacko, Jim Nolan and Valena Beety.  In my portion of the session I’ll be providing a bit of an introduction to restorative justice.

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Many children are injured at school, through accidents and through school violence.  As a parent, you will want to protect your child from this harm, but after it occurs, you will also want to take whatever action you can to help your child fully recover and enjoy school again.  Our office provides legal services and mediation services to work with families in West Virginia and the District of Columbia to help your child recover.

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