Opioid abuse has reached epidemic proportions across the U.S. In addition to illicit opioids such as heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and opioid pain relievers such as hydrocodone, codeine and numerous others have contributed to the wave of addiction. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of opioid pills that were sold by drug manufacturers to pharmacies and doctors almost quadrupled from 1999 to 2010 even though studies did not show a corresponding increase in the amount of reported pain by Americans during the same period.
The prescription drug abuse epidemic has touched many families across the country. The CDC reports that an average of 91 people dies each day from opioid overdoses. The American Society of Addiction Medicine reports that more than 52,000 people died as a result of opioid overdoses in 2015 alone. Of those deaths, 20,101 resulted from prescription opioid overdoses. Municipalities, counties and states have started to respond to this national problem by retaining opioid lawyers and filing lawsuits against some of the manufacturers and drug wholesalers of these drugs because of their sales and marketing practices. Through such litigation, the plaintiffs may be able to help halt the spread of opioid addiction. Families whose loved ones have died because of overdoses of opioids might also be able to seek relief through mass tort litigation against the manufacturers and wholesalers who are responsible with the help of opioid lawyers.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioids are drugs that block pain pathways in the brain. When people take opioids, they may experience relief from moderate to severe pain because the drug molecules bind to opioid receptor sites that are located in the brain, blocking the pain signals. These drugs also cause a feeling of euphoria, leading many people to use them recreationally. Because of the how they work, opioids change the manner in which the brain functions and have a large potential for addiction.
Prescription opioids can lead to addiction and death even when the people who are taking them were prescribed these drugs by their doctors. Since they are prescription medications, many people mistakingly believe that they are safe. However, the addictive potential of these drugs may lead people to take more than they are prescribed and to turn to illicit opioids such as heroin to feed their addictions. These drugs modify the reward system of the brain, and the CDC reports that up to 25 percent of all people who are legally prescribed opioids develop addictions to them.
Opioids slow breathing and interfere with the regulation of oxygen intake and the expulsion of carbon dioxide in the brain stem. When people take too many opioids, they may die because of the depression of their respiration. When respiration is depressed, the brain cannot get sufficient oxygen to function, and death can result. The amount of opioids that may cause overdoses varies, depending on the type of opiate, its strength, the individual’s weight, age and biochemistry. Some people may also suffer opioid overdoses because of their interactions with other medications that they are taking.
People may accidentally overdose on opioids. There are multiple factors that increase the risk of suffering an overdose. Some of the more common scenarios that our overdose addiction lawyers have encountered include the following:
If your loved one has suffered an opioid overdose, opioid addiction lawyers may be able to help you to hold those who are responsible accountable by filing lawsuits.
Proving liability in opioid overdose cases can be difficult. Individual plaintiffs may have issues with convincing juries to hold the defendants liable because their loved ones took the medications or drugs themselves. However, by filing mass tort lawsuits, it may be possible to hold the drug wholesalers and manufacturers liable for contributing to the problem of abuse and addiction of the products that they have introduced in the market. According to NPR, a coalition of 41 states is currently investigating the drug manufacturers who have supplied opioids to their markets. Multiple states, municipalities and counties have filed lawsuits against the companies, and more are sure to follow.
Pharmaceutical companies and drug wholesalers may argue that the victims were at fault in causing their own harms by not taking the drugs as prescribed. However, opioid lawyers might hold the companies liable if their warnings were inadequate or if they used illegal marketing strategies to unload more drugs on the market in order to reap profits.
The potential for mass tort litigation against the drug companies and drug wholesalers who manufacture and sell opioid medications may exist because of the precedent that was set by the mass tort litigation against Big Tobacco in the 1990s. In 1998, the tobacco companies entered into the largest-ever settlement in a civil litigation case. Tobacco users died after using the products that they were sold as they were intended. In cases against the pharmaceutical companies, however, liability may depend on showing that the companies violated other duties since most overdoses result in using the medications in ways for which they are not intended.
Drug manufacturers and wholesalers have a duty to divert shipments of drugs when they are suspicious under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. They also have a duty to provide adequate warnings of their side effects, risks and the potential for addiction. Many doctors report that the drug companies downplayed the risk of addiction to these drugs when the companies were marketing them. In one case involving Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, the company settled a lawsuit against it for $600 million in 2007. Three of its top executives also pleaded guilty to criminal charges. The company had misled doctors about the addictive potential of OxyContin by falsely claiming that its time-release formula made it less addictive than other opioids. The company used that claim to mount a highly aggressive marketing campaign, securing billions in profits. When drug companies market these drugs illegally or fail to divert suspicious shipments under the CSA, opioid lawyers may be able to hold them liable in subsequent lawsuits.
Local, county and state governments may be able to recover the following types of damages in lawsuits against the drug manufacturers and wholesalers of opioids:
Individuals who join these lawsuits as plaintiffs as a class may also recover damages, including:
There has been some disagreement about how much the opioid epidemic has cost. For example, a study that was published in the journal Medical Care in 2016 estimated the total U.S. economic burden of the opioid epidemic at $78.5 billion. A report in 2018 from the Society of Actuaries estimated that the U.S. economic burden from the opioid epidemic from 2015 to 2018 was at least $631 billion. However, the White House Council on Economic Affairs released a report on Oct. 28, 2019, stating that the estimated economic burden of the U.S. opioid epidemic crisis from 2015 to 2018 was $2.5 trillion, with the burden in 2018 alone estimated at $696 billion.
While the CEA’s estimate is far greater than the earlier estimates, the CEA attributes the difference to the fact that the death rate from opioids has grown over the past few years. The CEA also implements a different methodology in calculating the costs by including the social costs of premature deaths. Regardless of the study, it is clear that the opioid epidemic has cost hundreds of billions of dollars. This cost has been borne by everyone, including individuals, schools, cities, municipalities, tribes, and states.
Thousands of individuals and others have filed lawsuits against the drug makers that are responsible for manufacturing, marketing, and distributing prescription opioids in the U.S. since the 1990s. Many of these manufacturers, including Purdue, allegedly engaged in deceptive and fraudulent marketing tactics to try to increase their profits. The companies purportedly downplayed the addictive potential of the drugs that they were selling and incentivized health care professionals to prescribe their products. These companies did this in spite of knowing that the drugs that they were selling were very addictive and had high potentials for abuse.
Opioid lawsuits are filed against the drug makers for the harms that they have caused because of their fraudulent and deceptive marketing practices. Other lawsuits also focus on the fact that some companies ignored the fact that unusually large shipments of prescription opioids were ordered by pharmacies in communities that were much too small to require the amounts that were ordered. Instead of diverting these large shipments, the companies allegedly allowed them to be sent, flooding the communities and states with large amounts of prescription opioids and fueling the opioid epidemic. Because of these problems, lawsuits have been filed against the drug makers to hold them accountable for the harm that they have caused.
Opioid lawsuits have been filed by people who became addicted to these drugs after allegedly being assured that they were not as addictive as long as they were taken as prescribed. They have also been filed by the family members of people who have died after overdosing on drugs that they were prescribed. In addition to individuals and families, many other parties have filed lawsuits. Cities, counties, states, tribes, and schools have all filed opioid lawsuits against drug manufacturers to try to recover damages to pay for the costs associated with dealing with the opioid epidemic.
Individuals, families, schools, and local and state governments have to deal with the staggering costs that are associated with treating people who are addicted to opioids and the ravages to their communities. Cities, counties, tribal governments, and states across the nation are pursuing opioid litigation against the drug manufacturers to recover damages that are related to the increased costs of insurance, criminal justice costs, substance abuse treatment, lost productivity, and more that have been caused by the epidemic.
Lawsuits or bankruptcy claims provide communities with a way to hold the drug makers accountable for the roles that they have played in fueling the opioid abuse crisis while recovering damages to cover the losses that have been suffered. By filing lawsuits or bankruptcy claims, local and state governments can potentially secure the resources that they need to fight the opioid epidemic in their communities. Currently, more than 2,000 lawsuits against the drug makers filed by local and state governments from across the nation have been joined in multi-district litigation in Ohio.
Purdue Pharma is considered by many to have been the instigator of the opioid epidemic beginning with its aggressive marketing campaign for Oxycontin in the mid to late 1990s. The company marketed OxyContin as having a low addictive potential and encouraged doctors to prescribe the drug for non-cancer pain. The company held numerous all-expenses-paid conferences for health care professionals in the late 1990s and early 2000s, attracting thousands of attendees. The efforts paid off, and the company was selling more than $1 billion of OxyContin each year by 2001.
Despite Purdue’s claims of the relative safety of OxyContin, internal documents demonstrated that the company was aware of the addictive nature of the drug shortly after it was approved by the FDA in 1996. However, the company allegedly hid this information and persisted in fraudulently marketing the drug as safe to doctors, leading to many physicians across the country to prescribe the drug for all sorts of pain. This resulted in millions of people becoming addicted to opioids across the U.S.
In the face of thousands of lawsuits, Purdue settled with several states and localities in Sept. 2019. As a part of the settlement, the company agreed to file a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition, which it did on Sept. 15, 2019. In its proposed settlement, the company would provide between $10 and $12 billion to combat the opioid crisis, including the cost of drugs to treat addiction.
A Chapter 11 bankruptcy case is a type of corporate bankruptcy that allows companies to restructure their debts. In this case, the company is attempting to take care of the thousands of lawsuits that have been filed against it through its bankruptcy case. Unlike Chapter 7 bankruptcy, a Chapter 11 bankruptcy does not mean that the company will close its doors and sell off its assets to repay a portion of what it owes. Instead, restructuring debt means that the company will submit its proposed settlement, and the bankruptcy court would determine how much each of the creditors should receive.
After the bankruptcy petition was filed, the court issued a temporary injunction, which halted the litigation pending against the company. On Nov. 6, 2019, the court extended the temporary injunction until April 8, 2020. The lawsuits against the company and the Sackler family, the family that owns the company, have all been frozen by the injunction. Some of the plaintiffs argued against the injunction for the Sackler family, arguing that they did not deserve to have the protections extended to them.
While the bankruptcy petition has frozen the litigation in court, that does not mean that all litigation will be foreclosed. Instead, plaintiffs may file their claims in the bankruptcy court to litigate them through the bankruptcy process. When plaintiffs file claims in the bankruptcy court, they are referred to as creditors. Once the court has received the company’s proposed settlement and all of its supporting financial evidence that show its resources and liabilities, the creditors are then able to litigate over whether the settlement should be approved by the court or denied.
The bankruptcy court can then determine whether or not to approve the proposed settlement, modify it, or dismiss the bankruptcy petition. Creditors can argue about the amounts that they should be awarded to cover their losses. One important difference to note about pursuing claims in bankruptcy court versus civil court is that bankruptcy cases are often resolved much faster than complex litigation in the federal court system.
The bankruptcy court has strict deadlines for creditors to file their claims. Listed creditors are the creditors that the company names in its filings. These creditors will be notified by the court and given a chance to review the proposed settlement and to file objections that they might have. For non-listed creditors, there are strict deadlines for filing claims in the bankruptcy case. Plaintiffs need to file their proof of claim forms with the bankruptcy court by the deadline. If they do not, they will lose their ability to recover damages through the company’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy case.
Some state and local governments have filed lawsuits against the Sackler family, the owners of the drugmaker. The Sacklers are among the wealthiest families in the U.S., and several state attorneys general have argued that the family has been diverting money out of the company to accounts that the family controls for several years to protect the family’s wealth from the reach of plaintiffs. While the Sackler family agreed to provide up to $3 billion in funds for the proposed settlement, many plaintiffs have argued that it is not enough and have filed lawsuits against the family members in their individual capacities in addition to the lawsuits against the company.
However, when the company filed its lawsuit, it asked the bankruptcy court to issue an injunction to protect both the company and the Sacklers from litigation while the bankruptcy case is pending. While bankruptcy courts typically will not extend injunctions to protect third parties that have not filed lawsuits, the judge, in this case, agreed to grant the injunction. Like the injunction that halted litigation against the company, the injunction that protects the Sackler family is scheduled to continue until April 8, 2020. Since they are not parties to the bankruptcy case, however, lawsuits against them might be filed once the injunction is lifted.
The experienced opioid lawyers at Lamber Goodnow and our partner law firms are representing plaintiffs from across the U.S. in lawsuits against the drugmakers to hold them accountable for the substantial harm that they have caused to millions of people. Opioid litigation is very complex and requires the help of experienced attorneys who understand the applicable laws and how mass tort litigation works. When you work with an experienced legal team, you will have the benefit of our years of experience, skill, and depth of knowledge about the opioid crisis and its impact on individuals and communities across the nation. We can evaluate your potential claim and provide you with an assessment of its merits. Getting help from one of our attorneys might allow you to file your claim within the deadline to preserve your rights to recover damages for the losses that have been suffered by you or by our community. Contact Lamber Goodnow today to schedule a consultation so that you can learn more about the rights that you might have.