Mississippi Supreme Court Revives Case of Man Who Died From Acetaminophen-Induced Liver Failure

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Levin Papantonio Rafferty (LPR) law firm announced a 5-4 Mississippi Supreme Court decision affirming a Mississippi Court of Appeals ruling that reversed the dismissal of a wrongful death case related to acetaminophen-induced liver failure.

LPR Attorney Tim O’Brien represents the widow of Marcus D. Smith, who in 2013 suffered cervical fracture and multiple rib fractures in a multi-vehicle accident in Jackson County, Mississippi. When released from the hospital, Smith was prescribed Lortab, a pain medication containing hydrocodone and acetaminophen. Acetaminophen is the active ingredient in the over-the-counter pain medication, Tylenol.

Days later, Smith developed symptoms of mental impairment and combativeness and was diagnosed with acute liver failure due to acetaminophen toxicity. He died on September 24, 2013, from liver failure.

LPR filed a wrongful-death action in Jackson County Circuit Court on behalf of Leslie Smith, the widow of the deceased and personal representative of Smith’s estate, against defendants Rosalinde Minier, who operated a personal vehicle in the collision, and Werner Enterprises, owner of a tractor trailer involved in the wreck.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Minier and Werner Enterprises and dismissed the wrongful death case, ruling Smith’s acetaminophen-induced liver failure was not a legally foreseeable injury from the automobile accident. A final judgment was entered.

O’Brien appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by applying a subjective standard of foreseeability and resolving a factual issue as a matter of law. The Mississippi Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment (Smith v. Minier, No. 2021-CA-01284-COA, 2023 WL 2381726).

In its Opinion, the Court of Appeals pointed out expert testimony presented by Dr. Neil Julie, a gastroenterologist who cited volumes of medical and regulatory evidence establishing objective knowledge of acetaminophen’s ability to cause liver failure.

“While the Defendants may not have foreseen the manner of Marcus’[s] death, a reasonable juror could determine that the Defendants should have foreseen that an injury would require medication and that an adverse reaction to that medication could occur. Accordingly, the trial court erred when it granted summary judgment in favor of the Defendants,” the Court of Appeals stated in its ruling.

Defendants Werner Enterprises and Minier then filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the Mississippi Supreme Court, which accepted the case for review. The Mississippi Supreme Court, sitting en banc, affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals, and thereby reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.

Writing for the majority, Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Chamberlin Chamberlin wrote that the grant of summary judgment must be reversed: “While duty and causation both involve foreseeability, duty is an issue of law, and causation is generally a matter for the jury.

O’Brien applauded the Court’s ruling, saying, “This is a huge victory that upholds the important role of juries on determining issues of cause in Mississippi. The law rewards neither the careless nor the ignorant, and now, Mrs. Smith can have her day in court.”