NC ordered to pay $528K in patient overdose death

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina has been ordered to pay nearly $528,000 to the parents of a man given a lethal overdose of methadone at a government-run drug treatment facility.

The N.C. Industrial Commission ordered the payment this week in the death of Jeffrey S. Harbin, who was given the dose at the R.J. Blackley Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Center in Butner in 2009. Under state law, the commission reviews wrongful death claims against the government.

Records show Harbin, 42, of Mebane, was found slumped in a bathroom after staff at the facility gave him huge doses of methadone, a drug used to treat the symptoms of heroin withdrawal. Harbin had a long history of abusing cocaine, not heroin.

N.C. Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Julie Henry declined Friday to comment on the settlement.

Records show Harbin had struggled with drugs and alcohol since he was a teenager and voluntarily checked himself into the state facility.

His medical records said Harbin lied when he was admitted, telling a doctor that he had been using a gram of heroin a day. The doctor prescribed methadone without waiting for the results of a urine test to confirm the addiction. The results showed Harbin had been using cocaine and marijuana, but not heroin.

Doctors at Blackley failed to review those results or subsequent urine tests before increasing Harbin’s dosage of methadone, according to records. Following orders from two doctors, staff administered 80 milligrams of methadone in just 27 hours — twice the federally recommended daily maximum dose.

During a stay the prior year, Harbin’s heart stopped after he was given large doses of the drug. Harbin was revived with CPR. After recovering in the Durham hospital, he was returned to Blackley.

After he died in 2009, an autopsy showed Harbin had methadone in his blood at twice the level considered toxic. Federal authorities cited the facility for four major violations in the case, threatening to cut off Medicaid funding.

Despite the evidence of wrongdoing, top officials at the facility elected to tell his family nothing about the staff’s role in his death. Harbin’s parents learned he had been given a lethal overdose after being contacted by a reporter.

For the last three years, the state fought paying any compensation to the family. Their lawyer says what they really wanted was an apology.

“The facts proved in this case represent some of the most egregious negligence and wrongful conduct I have ever seen,” said Chris Olson, the Raleigh lawyer representing Harbin’s parents. “After causing the wrongful death of Jeff Harbin over four years ago, no DHHS official … ever offered either an apology or an explanation of what went wrong, and what the agency intended to do to see that it never happened again.”


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