Lawsuit Over Drug Withdrawal in Prison: Wrongful Death from Benzodiazepine Withdrawal

Drug withdrawal in prison can be fatal, particularly when it involves withdrawal from Benzodiazepines.  Benzodiazepines (sometimes called “benzos” for short) are a class of drugs that are sometimes used to treat anxiety, insomnia, agitation, and other conditions. Commonly-prescribed benzos include Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, Ativan, and their generic equivalents (e.g., alprazolam, clonezepam, diazepam, lorazepam, etc.). Benzos are also a commonly abused drug—many people have been known to obtain and use benzos without a prescription.

The use of benzos can result in physical dependence. A person who has become physically dependent on benzos, such as Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, Ativan, and/or their generic equivalents (e.g., alprazolam, clonezepam, diazepam, lorazepam, etc.) can go through drug withdrawal if he or she suddenly stops taking the drug. In general, benzos should be slowly discontinued (tapered) under a doctor’s supervision to minimize withdrawal symptoms, which can include restlessness, insomnia, irritability, panic, tremors, sweating, nausea/vomiting, headache, seizure, psychosis and hallucinations. Withdrawing “cold turkey” from benzos without medical supervision can be extremely dangerous. Rapid discontinuance of benzos can lead to a syndrome of severe withdrawal symptoms in many individuals, sometimes resulting in death.

When an individual is confined to jail or prison, and benzodiazepine withdrawal develops, the risks can be great. Numerous deaths have occurred around the country as the result of benzodiazepine withdrawal in jail or prison.

Courts have long recognized the dangers of drug withdrawal in jail or prison, particularly in the case of benzodiazepines. Courts therefore require that jail and prison personnel act constitutionally and not deny medical care to people going through benzodiazepine withdrawal in jail or prison. When the risks are not dealt with properly, and when death results, surviving family members may have a claim against the jail or prison (or its personnel) for wrongful death from drug withdrawal in jail or prison.

Unfortunately, when it comes to drug withdrawal, jails and prisons do not always follow the law. An Ohio case handled by Budge & Heipt in the late 2000s illustrates our point. A man was sentenced to serve prison time in a federal prison in Ohio. The man was heavily dependent on Xanax – a drug he had been taking in high doses for an extended time. Prior to reporting to serve his term, he had been told to bring his prescription with him. When he arrived at the prison, however, he was told that he was not permitted to have the Xanax prescription. No appropriate alternative was provided, and the man went into withdrawal. After several days, his withdrawal symptoms became acute. The man died in prison just days after he was admitted, leaving his widow and two sons behind.

We brought a wrongful death suit in federal court in Ohio on behalf of the man’s surviving family members, alleging wrongful death resulting from Xanax withdrawal. Working closely with experts and specialists in corrections and addiction medicine, Budge & Heipt was able to secure a settlement of approximately half-a-million dollars.

Erik Heipt is an experienced courtroom litigator, focusing on catastrophic injury or wrongful death while incarcerated or by police. He seeks justice for the families and victims of alcohol or drug withdrawal in jail. Contact Budge & Heipt for a free consultation.

If you or a loved one has been a victim of serious injury and/or death at the hands of police or in jail or prison, tell us about your case.