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Opioid crisis sparks flood of lawsuits

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Through the decades, manufacturers have sold many unsafe and harmful products to the American public. Every so often, the pain and destruction from one of those products becomes so widespread and unavoidable that elected officials are compelled to go after the manufacturer of those products to seek compensation for society.

That was the case with tobacco products in the 1990s. Litigation in that matter resulted in the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement in 1998, involving the major cigarette companies at the time agreeing to pay settlements to 46 states, some of those payments in perpetuity. The tobacco companies also agreed to alter their advertising practices.

It is likely that opioid manufacturers are headed for a similar outcome, as lawsuits against them have exploded in recent months. In some cases, litigation was started by municipalities before moving to the state level. In 2017, for instance, Sullivan County joined other NY counties by hiring a law firm to bring a suit against “various manufacturers of prescription opiates.”

“The time is long overdue to hold the pharmaceutical companies accountable for their role in creating the opioid addiction crisis,” legislator Alan Sorensen said at the time.

The next year in September 2018, NY’s acting attorney general filed a lawsuit against the most visible opioid manufacturer—Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin.

In March 28 of this year, NYS Attorney General Letitia James announced an amended lawsuit against six opioid manufactures, as well as the Sackler family, which founded and owns Purdue Pharma.

“Despite having full knowledge of opioids’ risk of addiction, abuse and diversion, the Sacklers, as the owners of Purdue involved with each and every material decision relating to the development and sale of Purdue’s opioids, were actively involved in marketing Purdue’s opioids in a way that deceptively minimized those risks and overstated the benefits.”

Across the nation, Purdue Pharma is facing some 1,500 lawsuits over opioid addiction.

“[The Sacklers] put profit over patients,” James said at a news conference at the time, adding that, “As Purdue sold more and more opioids, the Sackler family transferred more and more and more wealth to their personal account.” James said she will pursue the family’s personal wealth.

Her announcement came just a few days after the State of Oklahoma announced a settlement with Purdue and the Sackler family in a case in that state. The company and the family agreed to pay $270 million to the state.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro on May 14, also announced a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma. He said, “By misrepresenting and omitting correct, scientifically supported contrary evidence concerning their opioid product, Purdue offered a product that was materially different from what was purported to be in the marketplace.”

Another company facing multiple lawsuits is Johnson & Johnson. It was a defendant in the Oklahoma lawsuit but declined to settle, and the trial is now taking place. An expert witness testified that the company made money selling its own opioid pills and also by selling an active ingredient in painkillers to other companies. The active ingredient was obtained from a poppy cultivated in Tasmania by a company Johnson & Johnson owned until 2016.

The flood of lawsuits has lead one opioid manufacturer to declare bankruptcy. Insys Therapeutics, Inc., which manufactures a nasal spray painkiller, Subsys, that contains fentanyl, filed for bankruptcy protection on June 10. That came just four days after the company reached a $225 million settlement with the U.S. Justice Department regarding the use of bribery in convincing doctors to prescribe its product.

In May, Insys founder John Kapoor and four other former executives were found guilty in federal court of a racketeering conspiracy regarding the sale of Subsys.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Every day, more than 130 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the total ‘economic burden’ of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year, including the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment and criminal justice involvement.”

As of January of this year, more than 1,800 lawsuits had been filed against opioid manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies. Six hundred of those cases have been bundled together in a federal trial to begin in October in Cleveland, Ohio, and many parties are calling for a tobacco-settlement-style solution.

The River Reporter endorses the concept of a master settlement agreement to be achieved through the court system by bundling these hundreds of lawsuits.

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