A landmark opioid lawsuit nearly began on October 21 in Ohio. But thanks to an eleventh-hour settlement from three of its defendants, we can’t keep watching to see what happens. But what might’ve happened?
It depends. There are many moving pieces when you look into the ongoing lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors. Let’s see what we can explain.
There are three main players in these lawsuits: the plaintiffs, the pharmaceutical companies, and Judge Dan Polster.
There are too many plaintiffs to list them all out. As of October 2019, the list included more than 2,500 different individuals, tribal authorities, local governments, and state governments. Because of how pervasive the opioid crisis has become, people and organizations everywhere want to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable.
These plaintiffs allege that pharmaceutical companies marketed their opioids deceptively by understating the risk of addiction. They also accuse doctors of prescribing opioids too easily for chronic pain, and argue that distributors didn’t monitor suspicious opioid requests which some people might’ve misused. All these individuals, local authorities, and state governments want compensation for the financial (estimated tens of billions of dollars) and emotional harm done to their communities.
This list is also too long to include everyone. Pharmaceutical manufacturers aren’t the only ones on the legal hook. Many drugstores that sell prescription opioids and physicians that prescribe them are also in hot water for their alleged roles in fueling the opioid crisis.
But some defendants have gotten the most publicity, usually because they include the biggest names in healthcare today. Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family who runs it have taken extraordinary heat recently (we’ll get back to them). Here are a few more drugmakers:
Here are a few of the big-name distributors:
This U.S. judge has taken a central role in the federal lawsuit that had been set to begin October 21. Why?
A judicial panel (the United States Panel of Multidistrict Litigation) decided to streamline the court cases of about 2,300 defendants into one consolidated lawsuit under Polster’s control. He has experience with similar consolidated court cases and all their moving pieces, after all. And his district is in Ohio, one of the states worst-hit by the opioid crisis. And so, that October 21 lawsuit was set to take place in the Northern Ohio District under Polster’s guidance.
Now that you have an idea of the who, we can get into the when and the what.
To start way back at the beginning, the opioid crisis as we know it today began in the late 1990s with when prescription opioids became more available and more common. The way that drugmakers marketed the opioids, and then the way that many doctors prescribed them, caused greater numbers of these painkillers to flood the United States.
We’ve written before about the toll of the opioid crisis. With nearly 400,000 Americans dead from opioid-related causes since the late 1990s, most communities couldn’t bear the cost. They began to sue the manufacturers, marketers, doctors, and distributors whose actions unleashed the human and financial damages of the last two decades.
Remember, the trials themselves are only just beginning. When one begins, everyone’s watching to see what happens—one precedent can set the tone for what happens in the other cases. Though about 2,300 court cases have been consolidated under Judge Dan Polster in north Ohio, hundreds more are currently pending in other states.
The first state-versus-opioid-manufacturer lawsuit concluded on August 26, 2018. The state of Oklahoma had brought charges against Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, and Teva Pharmaceuticals (an Israeli manufacturer) for creating a “public nuisance” through opioids’ misuse. However, Purdue settled with Oklahoma for $270 million, while Teva settled for $80 million. Only Johnson & Johnson ended up going to trial.
That verdict ended up as a mixed bag: Judge Thad Balkman ordered the company to pay $572 million and later reduced the sum by $107 million because of a calculation error. The award to the state isn’t pocket change. But prosecutors had sought a payment of $17 billion, and so there’s reason to claim the lawsuit was a failure (add in that both Purdue Pharma and Teva denied any wrongdoing as part of their settlements).
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter celebrated the court victory despite the numbers: “Certainly we would’ve liked to walk out of here with $17 billion, but realistically we’ve been able to get together almost a billion dollars for Oklahoma.”
This court case was meant to be that consolidated case under Judge Dan Polster. He had scheduled it for October 21, but the case itself never got up and going: most of the largest defendants settled rather than going to trial.
The day of the trial, it was revealed that McKesson, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, and Teva had settled with court for a total of $260 billion. Only Walgreens had elected to stand trial (their new court date will be determined later). Two Ohio counties—Cuyahoga and Summit—had wanted $8 billion from the group prior to the settlements and re-scheduled court dates. Again, there’s talk that the companies were let off too easily.
This pharmaceutical manufacturing company has taken plenty of heat; many of the state lawsuits outside the scope of Polster’s consolidated case are against Purdue. Remember that Purdue Pharma manufactured the opioid Oxycontin. Why is Purdue Pharma seemingly a special case in such a long list of defendants?
It’s likely because Purdue already suffered legal consequences back in 2007—some of its executives pleaded guilty to misleading patients, doctors, and regulators about opioids’ risk of addiction—and then continued to market its drugs aggressively. At the time, the company paid $600 million. But pretrial documents gathered for the new lawsuits reveal that the company’s deception has continued.
And, for good measure, Purdue filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September. This move infuriated critics because it interrupted all the company’s legal troubles. The company also requested that its legal protections extend to the Sackler family who manages it.
However, part of the bankruptcy agreement with its plaintiffs requires the company to dissolve itself and hand over everything to a new board chosen by the plaintiffs. Tentative plans for the company’s assets might mean more access to opioid treatment services at lower costs. Still, its critics argue that Purdue Pharma is skating too easily.
It’s hard to tell for now. With so many manufacturers settling out of court, guessing how the courts will handle these cases gets harder. We don’t yet know the case-to-case patterns.
However, when so many people support legal consequences for companies who mislead doctors and patients, maybe those companies will handle opioids more carefully from now on. If we’re watchful of how opioids appear today, then we might get better at catching their misuse. That’s just speculation for now.
Based on the Johnson & Johnson ruling and all the settlements, we could guess that state and local authorities will receive new money to improve their opioid response efforts. As we’ve already mentioned, Oklahoma’s lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson awarded the state nearly half a billion dollars. If communities can put those funds towards effective opioid response (better access to MATs, opioid treatment centers, community addiction education, and more), they might have a better chance to slow the opioid crisis.
You can learn more about opioid lawsuits and opioid response efforts at Buprenorphine Doctors, specifically in our “In the News” section. We’ve been keeping track of where new funding and new programs have shown up around the country. Take a look if you’d like to understand how the country is trying to address the opioid crisis.
And if you like what you find, take a look at the rest of the site also. We’ve got resources for everything you might need—opioid treatment centers, opioid addiction doctors, and explanations of opioid treatments like buprenorphine, methadone, and naloxone. See what you find, and see how we can help you today!