Can litigation halt the opioid crisis?

Posted: February 8, 2018

Opioids are the new tobacco, at least when it comes to litigation.

Numerous claims have been filed across the country by cities (including New York), counties and states against makers and distributors of prescription painkillers. Delaware, for example, just became at least the 15th state to sue, according to Reuters. The lawsuit, filed in a state court, targets a number of drug makers, distributors and retailers.

“Opioid manufacturers misrepresented the addictive nature of their products,” Attorney General Matt Denn claims. “The failure of these corporate defendants to meet their legal obligations has had a devastating impact on Delawareans.”

Drug makers, however, say they want to be part of the solution as well: “This is our fight, too,” says one.

One federal judge is overseeing a collection of more than 180 suits brought against drug companies by local communities across the country. “What we’ve got to do is dramatically reduce the number of pills that are out there and make sure that the pills that are out there are being used properly,” United States District Judge Dan Polster of the Northern District of Ohio recently said in his Cleveland courtroom. “Because we all know that a whole lot of them have gone walking, with devastating results.” The issue is in the courts because “other branches of government have punted,” he said.

New York City has filed suit in state court, accusing manufacturers of misleading consumers about addiction risk and distributors for failure to report suspicious orders. The city is seeking half a billion dollars in damages to fight the crisis, according to Reuters.

“More New Yorkers have died from opioid overdoses than car crashes and homicides combined in recent years,” said  Mayor Bill de Blasio. Rates of drug overdose deaths in New York City more than doubled between 2010 and 2016, increasing from 8.2 per 100,000 residents in 2010 to 19.9 per 100,000 residents in 2016.

Drug distributors say they want to be part of the solution and don’t deserve the blame. “We are deeply engaged in the issue and are taking our own steps to be part of the solution. But we aren’t willing to be scapegoats,” said John Parker, senior vice president for Healthcare Distribution Alliance, a trade association. “Given our role, the idea that distributors are solely responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and how it is regulated.”

The litigation should be interesting, complex and far-reaching. In fact, some of the litigators who successfully sued Big Tobacco are reportedly on the plaintiff side of the current wave of opioid litigation. Said Joe Rice, a who gained fame in the tobacco litigation, “With a rising death toll and the grip of addiction impacting millions across the country in some way, shape or form, there’s no question that the opioid epidemic is one of the most pressing public health issues of our time. We have some very hard work ahead of us.”

Michael Saltman

Michael  has over two decades of experience growing and leading businesses in the litigation management arena. He has specific expertise in litigation management, deposition services, insurance claims and law department operations helping corporate clients grow the bottom line.