Prince wrongful death suit names suburban Walgreens stores

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Prince's family members claim this suburban Walgreens prescribed drugs that contributed to his death. Google Street

Just before midnight on April 14, 2016, Prince boarded a plane, heading home to Minnesota after a concert in Atlanta.

He had company: his friend and bodyguard Kirk Johnson, and the singer Judith Hill, who remembers Prince telling her that he was depressed, bored, and wanted his sleep more than he usually did. He’d thought he was going to fall asleep onstage, he said.

Not long after takeoff, the plane made an emergency landing in Moline, Illinois. Prince was suffering from an overdose, and needed urgent medical attention. The Moline Fire Department took him to Trinity Medical Center, a local hospital. They succeeded in reviving him, but it took 2 milligrams of naloxone, twice as much as it takes for the typical narcotics user.

A week later, Prince would have another overdose. That one was fatal.

After two years of investigation, no one has been criminally charged for Prince’s death. But his surviving family are seeking a different kind of justice, in civil court, where they lay blame for his overdoses on doctors and pharmacists.

On April 20 of this year, one day shy of the two-year anniversary of Prince's death, a trustee for Prince’s next of kin filed a suit against a number of organizations responsible for his care. One defendant in the lawsuit is Trinity, the hospital in Illinois. Another is the Walgreens company: the suit cites two specific Walgreens locations close to Prince's home -- one across the street from a Walmart in Bloomington, and another just off County Road 101 in Minnetonka -- as liable for the music legend's death.

The case against Walgreens boils down to blaming these suburban locations for giving Johnson, Prince's bodyguard, opioid medications that were actually meant for Prince. 

According to the civil complaint, prescription drugs intended for Prince were purchased from the Bloomington Walgreens on April 14, 2016, the same day as his Atlanta concert and diverted flight, and from the Walgreens in Minnetonka on April 20, the day before his fatal overdose.

Those prescriptions were written by Michael Schulenberg, a family doctor working out of Minnetonka, who wrote prescriptions for Prince in the name of Kirk Johnson, his bodyguard, according to federal prosecutors and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), who say Schulenberg violated the Controlled Substances Act. Search warrants indicate Schulenberg wrote prescriptions in Johnson's name in the interest of protecting Prince's privacy. 

Schulenberg has denied fault, and claims he did not prescribe drugs to anyone with the intent they would make their way to Prince. There’s no way of knowing whether or not Prince actually took the pills Schulenberg prescribed. Schulenberg has since agreed to a $30,000 civil settlement.

The prescription he penned April 20 was for a medication used to treat opiate withdrawals, and was filled later that same day. 

The next day, Prince suffered a second overdose at his Paisley Park estate in Chanhassen. He’d accidentally taken fentanyl: an opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin. Authorities believe Prince was unaware he was taking anything other than a generic prescription narcotic, and nobody knows where he got those pills.

The other wrinkle in this case is that prosecutors believe that Prince's first overdose in Moline may have on what he thought was a prescription opioid -- something like Vicodin -- but was actually a black market opioid laced with fentanyl.  So the question the suit is trying to answer comes down to how Prince got those drugs, and why Trinity didn't do something about it. 

The family's lawsuit claims Trinity hospital dropped the ball while Prince was in Moline, failing to properly investigate the cause of his overdose, and not giving the diagnosis, treatment, or counseling to prevent another one.

As for Walgreens, the complaint mentions specific “pharmacists and/or pharmacy employees” who consulted in Prince’s medical and pharmacy care. They don’t know their identities, the complaint says, so they’re referred to as Jane Doe nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

These Does, the complaint says, “committed one or more deviations from the standard of care, including, but not limited to dispensing prescription medications not valid for a legitimate medical purpose,” and failing to review the whole drug dispensing process properly. Essentially: Prince was getting drugs he wasn’t supposed to, and somebody should have noticed and said something given the circumstances – before he got to Moline altogether, and before he suffered his final overdose in the elevator in Paisley Park.

The complaint alleges these "one or more" of these "deviations" are a "direct and proximate cause" of Prince's death.

The family trustee is demanding an amount in excess of $50,000 as compensation. Attorneys behind the suit say the family's intention is to keep this kind of thing from happening again, to anyone.

Though they've been in the limelight often since he died, in life, Prince never enjoyed a straightforward relationship with his family. Hill says Prince told her she was closer than his own blood relations that night on the plane, before his first overdose.

In the absence of a will from the late star, his family is left to fight over who claims Prince’s wealth and legacy. So far, for the former, the answer has been attorneys: Some $6 million of Prince's estate had been spent on legal fees as of March. 

Neither Minnesota Walgreens location named in the lawsuit responded to requests for comments. Walgreens’ companywide PR rep, Phil Caruso, said they’d decline to comment while the litigation is pending.


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