Walgreens, the country's largest pharmacy chain, is fighting to contain damage from two serious errors by its pharmacists, illustrating the larger problem of pharmacy errors that are blamed for thousands of deaths each year.

Walgreens has been ordered to pay $31.3 million to the estate of Leonard Kulisek, 79. He suffered a slow and painful death after a drug-abusing pharmacist in Schaumburg, Ill., gave him diabetes medication instead of the gout medicine that had been prescribed.

Two days later Kulisek slipped into a coma and had to start dialysis. Months later, he suffered a stroke and his health continued to spiral downward until November 2002, when he made the decision to stop dialysis and die.

The pharmacist, James Wilmes, admitted that he was addicted to prescription pain killers and that he had stolen over 86,000 pills over an eight-year period, according to court testimony.

Walgreens admitted the error but argued that it was not responsible for Kulisek's death because medical records proved he already suffered from kidney problems.

David Axelrod, attorney for Kulisek's estate conceded that Kulisek had mild kidney problems but said the diabetes medication was "the bullet that sent Len Kulisek downhill."

The jury agreed with Axelrod.

"The only way we could hope to change the system in the future was to hurt them financially," said jury forewoman Lisa Barrington after the verdict was announced Friday.

In the second case, Michael Wells, of Milford Village, Mich. had surgery on his prostate in late October 2003. His surgeon, Kenneth Kernan, prescribed an antibiotic to fight off any post-surgery infection. Instead, an unnamed pharmacist at Walgreens filled his prescription with Diuril, a diuretic.

Five days went by and Wells was having intense leg cramps. After some research on the Internet he discovered that he had been given the wrong medication. He went back to Walgreens and the pharmacist admitted that he or she had made an error.

The next day, Wells developed a major infection in his surgical wound. A doctor who examined Wells that day said it was almost definitely a result of the pharmacist's error.

Wells spent the next several months fighting the infection with the help of three doctors. The infection spread across much of his lower body and he continues to suffer from its effects.

Attorney Douglas Peters filed suit against Walgreens in February 2006.

Not Unusual

Although these two cases have attracted national attention, they are just a few of the millions of errors committed by pharmacists ispharmacies each year.

A 2004 study by Betsy Flynn, professor at Auburn University, estimates that American pharmacists make 56 million prescription errors a year.

The Institute of Medicine published a study in 1999 that estimates that 48,000 to 99,000 people die each year in America due to medical errors.

Errors "Rare," Walgreens Claims

"Pharmacy errors are very rare, but when they happen we take them very seriously," Carol Hively, Walgreens spokeswoman told ConsumerAffairs.com in an e-mail. "No pharmacist wants to make an error."

"We have a multi-step prescription filling process, with numerous safety checks in each step, to reduce the chance of human error," Hively wrote.

Hively suggested consumers get familiar with their medication so they can take an active role in decreasing the risk that they are killed by their pharmacist's error.

"We encourage patients to become knowledgeable about their medications and know what their medications are and what they look like," Hively wrote. "To that end, Walgreens includes on the patient information sheet a picture showing the shape of the pill and any markings on it. This is a valuable reference tool patients can use to check their medicine when they're home or after they may have put the pills in another container."