That’s what the courts are going to figure out as part of a negligence lawsuit against Airbnb for the wrongful death of a toddler
You’ve heard about it on the news.
Maybe you’ve known someone who died from it.
Or maybe you’re only vaguely aware of the danger.
But it is dangerous. Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid. It’s up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.
Not all fentanyl is illegal or a street drug, though. Doctors prescribe pharmaceutical fentanyl for severe pain. But when you hear about fentanyl overdoses, you’re hearing about illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF). Most IMF is produced in Mexico.
IMF can be either liquid or powdered fentanyl. As a liquid, fentanyl can be mixed into nasal sprays, eye drops, or dropped onto paper or candy.
As a powder, fentanyl has no taste or smell. You likely can’t see it when mixed with another drug, either.
The serious and scary danger of powdered fentanyl
What makes fentanyl so dangerous is that powdered fentanyl looks like other drugs—so much so that it can be mixed with heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine and made into pills that resemble prescription opioids. These drugs laced with fentanyl are dangerous because of its high potency, and people are often unaware that it’s been laced into their drugs.
The CDC reports that more than 150 people in the U.S. die every day from an overdose related to fentanyl or another synthetic opioid.
Many of these overdoses happen because the user believes they are purchasing heroin but the heroin has been laced with fentanyl and the user is unaware.
How does fentanyl affect the body?
Some effects of fentanyl include:
- Intense, short-term high
- Temporary euphoria
- Relaxation & pain relief
- Drowsiness and dizziness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Slowed respiration and reduced blood pressure
- Urinary retention
- Pupillary constriction
Signs that someone is experiencing a fentanyl overdose
- Small pupils
- Falling asleep, losing consciousness
- Slow or weak breathing (or no breathing)
- Choking or gurgling
- Cold, clammy or discolored skin or discolored lips or nails
Can a non-drug user overdose on fentanyl?
You can’t overdose on fentanyl through skin exposure by touching a doorknob, money, or other surface that is contaminated with the drug. You can be exposed through the skin by touching a doctor-prescribed fentanyl skin patch.
Fentanyl can affect a person who comes into contact with the substance unintentionally. This primarily affects emergency responders, hospital personnel and police officers.
Fentanyl can affect someone through inhalation; ingestion (taken by mouth); touching the eyes, nose, or mouth directly (such as through touching with contaminated gloves or hands); liquid drugs can be absorbed by the skin; or by being stuck by a needle.
A police officer might be exposed while apprehending or searching a subject, responding to an overdose call, while executing a search warrant, or while handling drugs or drug paraphernalia.
Children and fentanyl patch exposure
As mentioned above, a person would not overdose on fentanyl because they touched an object with leftover fentanyl powder remaining. The playground is safe. Picking up a dollar found on the ground is safe. Public bathrooms are safe.
But there is a risk, and that’s to a child exposed to a fentanyl patch. Duragesic is the brand name of the transdermal fentanyl patch; it’s prescribed by doctors to treat opioid-tolerant patients who require long-term and ongoing pain management. The patch is applied to the skin and releases fentanyl to be absorbed into the bloodstream. The patient replaces the patch about every three days.
If a child comes into contact with a fentanyl patch, they could be in danger of an overdose. If a child sticks a patch on their skin or places it in their mouth, they can die because the drug slows their breathing and decreases the amount of oxygen in their blood.
The FDA warns patients and caregivers about this risk, and it’s especially important if a patient who uses Duragesic has a child in the home or spends time with a young child. The patient should be counseled by their provider about proper storage and disposal of the patches.
Reduce the risk of accidental fentanyl exposure by a Duragesic patch
The FDA recommends the following to ensure that no one—particularly a child—is exposed to fentanyl via a patch:
- Patches should be stored in a secure location out of a child’s reach. Young children might mistake a patch for a Band-Aid, sticker, or temporary tattoo. Be sure that it’s not accessible to a child.
- Apply first aid tape or transparent adhesive film over the patch on your skin. This will secure the patch so it doesn’t come loose and fall off.
- Check your patch frequently during the day if you’re around children; make sure it’s securely attached and not missing.
- Immediately dispose of a patch upon removal.
The FDA suggests that when you remove the patch, you fold it in half with the sides sticking together and flush down the toilet. Avoid placing them in household trash where children or pets could get ahold of them. Remember that a single exposure through a patch could be fatal to someone who is not the patient for whom it was prescribed.
Opioid lawsuits are not new.
What is new is the types of lawsuits that are being filed as related to opioid-related injuries and deaths.
The “opioid crisis” that came about around 2010 spawned a variety of lawsuits against manufacturers of pharmaceutical opioids, claiming that Big Pharma marketed these drugs to a vulnerable population without warning them about their addictive qualities.
You can read more about earlier opioid lawsuits:
Today, there are some other types of lawsuits related to fentanyl.
Airbnb lawsuit for baby’s fentanyl death
In March 2023, a family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Airbnb after their toddler died from fentanyl exposure during their stay at one of its properties.
19-month-old Enora Lavenir’s parents put her down for a nap one afternoon while they visited Florida in August 2021. They were staying in an Airbnb rental in Wellington, Palm Beach County.
But shortly thereafter, Enora’s parents discovered she was foaming at the mouth and had passed away. The medical examiner found fentanyl in her blood.
The Lavenir family booked their stay through Airbnb, but the previous renters had booked through Vrbo, a similar short-term booking app. The Lavenirs’ stay was the first Airbnb booking for the house.
The home had a history of being used as a “party house.” Days before the Lavenirs’ arrival, it hosted at least a dozen adults who used cocaine and other drugs in the house, according to the lawsuit.
Enora’s tragic death was ruled an accident, but official records showed they’d been to the same Airbnb house a few weeks earlier because of a loud party. An Airbnb renter who’d been in the home told police that people used powder cocaine and marijuana in the house prior to Enora’s family’s arrival.
They filed the lawsuit against the previous renter, who acknowledged awareness of drug use in the house, the homeowner, and against Airbnb. Enora’s death was determined to be the result of contact with fentanyl residue left in the Airbnb.
The Lavenirs said in an interview that their hope is that Airbnb and other rental platforms will provide warnings if there have been parties in a house, and that every surface is cleaned and linens washed prior to the next family’s rental.
Under the Florida Wrongful Death Act, § 768.16, the wrongful death claim is limited to $30,000 exclusive of costs and interest. The claim asserts that Airbnb has known for years that drug use was prevalent in its properties and also that homes were rented to families with babies and children. In 2020, Airbnb established a “party ban,” but there was no enforcement.
Airbnb allegedly had knowledge that drugs, paraphernalia, and residue were left behind in the rental properties and that they could present a risk to future guests, including children. The lawsuit includes dozens of posts by Airbnb guests who claimed to have found evidence of drug use in their units, including needles, empty drug bags, cocaine spoons, and other items.
As of this writing, Enora Lavenir’s wrongful death lawsuit continues in the court system.
Snapchat lawsuits for fentanyl deaths
Sadly, Enora’s case won’t be the last.
In another wrinkle, two Colorado families are suing social media giant Snapchat (corporate parent Snap Inc.) related to their children’s deaths from fentanyl.
Patti Lujan’s 18-year-old daughter Lauren fatally overdosed in 2020 after purchasing what she believed to be Percocet through Snapchat, but was laced with fentanyl.
Lujan was one of more than 50 families who have filed lawsuits against Snapchat for fentanyl-related deaths. The Snapchat claim is that the platform enables drug dealers to sell fake prescription pills that are laced with fentanyl to teens and young adults.
The Social Media Victims Law Center filed a lawsuit against Snapchat on behalf of the families of teens and young adults who died after purchasing what they believed to be prescription medications including Percocet, Oxycodone and Xanax from drug dealers they met on the social platform.
The head attorney on the lawsuit claims that Snapchat is aware that the services is being used by drug dealers to reach vulnerable teens and young adults in order to knowingly sell pills laced with fentanyl.
Naloxone (brand name Narcan) is a life-saving medication. It can be purchased at a pharmacy without a prescription in most places. Some first responders carry naloxone and are trained to administer it to a patient in an emergency. The drug is FDA-approved for everyone, including children and newborn babies. It can fully reverse an opioid overdose if administered in time. However, the naloxone wears off in 30-90 minutes and fentanyl can take longer than that, which is why it’s important to get the victim to a hospital immediately even if naloxone has been administered.
What’s next for fentanyl lawsuits?
Only time (and the courts) will tell. Unfortunately, the tricky part is establishing true liability and negligence for a fentanyl-related death. Yes, the homeowner of the Airbnb should have taken steps to clean the property thoroughly between renters—particularly knowing that it was a reputed party house. And it would seem as though Airbnb has some liability, too. But what about the liability of the person who brought fentanyl to the house in the first place? They’re arguably the most negligent and liable, but identifying that person and proving their culpability could be impossible.
There’s also the possibility that the individual who was negligent in leaving a substance with fentanyl in a place where a child or baby could find it didn’t know that the substance was laced with fentanyl... so, then, whose fault is it, really?
Because drug dealers aren’t going to step up and admit wrongdoing, this is a murky area where liability is concerned.
Like certain other areas of civil personal injury law, these cases often overlap with criminal proceedings. In some cases where a child died from a fentanyl overdose after accidentally accessing the parent’s illegal drugs, parents have been charged with murder but no personal injury claims are filed.
The ideal, of course, is for no person—child or adult—to die of accidental fentanyl exposure or overdose. But we know that this problem isn’t going away anytime soon.