As lawsuits related to the US opioid epidemic reach courtrooms, drug manufacturers are pressed to pay for prescription drug practices that incited drug abuse and death across the country.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the US opioid epidemic got its start in assurances provided by prescription drug manufacturers that opioid drugs were not dangerously addictive. By offering incentives to prescribing physicians and ongoing education on the safety of the drugs in the 1990’s, Pharma companies in the US reaped billions of dollars as the drugs were widely prescribed. These practices led to horrific death tolls as patients became hooked on drugs prescribed by physicians they trusted.
Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that deaths from drug overdose continue to rise in the US. Death by drug overdose is the leading cause of injury-related death in this country. In 2017, more than 47,000 people died of opioid-related overdose, representing almost 70 percent of all overdose deaths in this country.
The damage of the epidemic is difficult to tally. Death, broken families, babies born already addicted, dying communities, ongoing addiction and drug abuse, lost productivity, soaring healthcare and criminal justice efforts are just some of the consequences of the epidemic. Legal challenges against drug manufacturers are mounting and a bellwether case recently resulted in a stunning loss to drug giant Johnson and Johnson.
Johnson and Johnson ordered to pay $572 million
A case in Oklahoma District Court was the first of thousands of lawsuits filed against manufacturers of opioid painkillers in this country.
While this matter was originally brought against two other companies as well as Johnson and Johnson, both Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals settled out of the case earlier. Purdue paid $270 million for an exit ticket, and Teva paid $85 million to settle out of the matter.
Known for battling legal allegations at trial, Johnson and Johnson refused to settle. At the conclusion of the seven-week trial, Oklahoma District Court Judge Thad Balkman found Johnson and Johnson responsible for intentionally marketing pharmaceuticals it knew to be dangerously addictive. Although the State of Oklahoma had asked for $17 billion in compensation for the provision of long-term services to its citizens, the Judge awarded $572 million, roughly enough to cover one year of state expenses related to the opioid crises.
While Johnson and Johnson reports it will appeal the ruling, the Judge wrote that the actions of the company “caused exponentially increasing rates of addiction, overdose deaths” and children born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS).
As other lawsuits march toward their day in court, Pharma companies are using different means to reduce their exposure in these matters. We talked earlier about the State of Kentucky and a suit filed against Walgreens. In recent action in that case, the court denied a Motion to Dismiss filed by Walgreens.
A major player in the opioid crises, Purdue Pharma, was recently revealed by NBC and reported by The New York Times to be involved in settlement negotiations over thousands of lawsuits naming the company. Purdue is owned by the billionaire Sackler family. The family faces withering reaction to its get-richer-quick practices to aggressively market opioids like OxyContin. One lawsuit filed against the company and the family by the State of New York describes plans of Purdue to market to both ends of the funnel—providing pain killers and then pills to treat opioid addiction.
Recently, legal efforts by STAT and ProPublica resulted in the release of documents related to litigation against Purdue, including the 2015 deposition of Richard Sackler, which has been sealed since that time. Four months following the deposition, Purdue settled with the State of Kentucky for $24 million. Concurrently, the Sackler family then set up a generic drug company, Rhoades Pharma to continue to market opioids.
Current negotiations between prosecutors and the Sackler family are reported to include a global settlement of litigation pending against the Sackler family and Purdue, in exchange for compensation from Sacklers in the range of $10 to $12 billion.
Whether this settlement can satisfy states and agencies for tor the egregious harm done by the Sackler family and its business interests remains to be seen.
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