Big Pharma ‘On the Hook’ for the Opioid Crisis

April 10, 2022

4 mins

Dane O'Leary


We're seeing a number of lawsuits targeting Big Pharma for the role pharmaceutical companies played in the opioid crisis. Let's look at some of these lawsuits and why they're important.

From 1999 to 2019, over half a million people died from opioid overdoses.

From 1999-to 2019, over half a million people died from opioid overdoses. Even now, an average of 136 people die from opioid overdoses every day, a figure that includes both illicit opioids and prescription opioids. This staggering number is commonly referred to as the opioid epidemic and correlates with the rapid increase in the availability of both prescription and non-prescription opioid drugs. 

Of course, this public health crisis didn’t just materialize out of thin air. Most trace the opioid epidemic to the sudden surge in opioid prescription usage across the country in the 1990s. More than 30 years later, the people want someone held accountable for so many deaths, and Big Pharma is on the hook. 

Drugmakers, pharmacies, and even doctors are being targeted by lawsuits for their role in initiating and prolonging the ongoing opioid epidemic. Across state and federal jurisdictions, we’re seeing different approaches to holding someone responsible for this health crisis. Let’s take a moment to consider some of these important cases and what they could mean moving forward.

Florida Holds Big Pharma Responsible

The state of Florida contends that Walgreens is partly to blame for the opioid crisis. According to a recent report, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody aims to make Walgreens “accountable for helping create and fuel the deadly opioid crisis devastating Florida families and draining taxpayer-funded resources.”

Florida will argue that Walgreens was a drug distribution center for opioids. The amount of supply distributed in many cases far exceeded the potential population of the area that an individual store would be expected to serve. However, this isn’t the first time Big Pharma has faced a reckoning in Florida; to date, the state has won settlements totaling over $3 billion from various pharmaceutical companies.

West Virginia vs. Johnson & Johnson

In West Virginia, the crosshairs are trained on Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd, and AbbVie Inc responsible for what’s been described as “a tsunami of opioid addiction” unleashed in the state. 

Per court documents, representatives of West Virginia are arguing that the pharmaceutical industry has been a public nuisance due to deceptive marketing campaigns that lied to prescribers and patients about the addictive potential of opioids. 

West Virginia is one of five states not involved in the nationwide settlement with Johnson & Johnson, McKesson Corp, Cardinal Health Inc, and AmerisourceBergen Corp. Rather than settling, West Virginia is seeking justice for victims of the opioid epidemic in court. 

Wisconsin Wins Massive Opioid Settlement

In late March of 2022, Wisconsin won two class-action lawsuits resulting in $400 million in settlements. These funds are being paid by opioid distributors Cardinal, McKesson, and AmerisourceBergen. 

According to reports, one-third of the settlement will go to the Wisconsin Department of Health and Human Services where it will be used to educate children about the long-term consequences of opioids. The remaining two-thirds will go to the Wisconsin communities that were part of the lawsuit. 

The Sackler Family vs. Massachusetts

Massachusetts recently reached an independent settlement for $4.3 billion with the Sackler family, infamous owners of Purdue Pharma. However, the lawsuit is notable for more than the settlement; it also requires that Purdue Pharma be sold by 2024. 

According to the suit, the Sacklers have been deemed responsible for the opioid epidemic. As a result, they are forever banned from opioid manufacturing and distribution. The Sackler family charitable foundation must also be turned over to an independent trustee who will use the foundation’s funds to address the opioid epidemic. 

Finally, it also requires the Sacklers and Purdue to share millions of documents that could offer additional insight into the roles that the family and the company played in the opioid crisis. Among the numerous lawsuits happening, this one against the Sackler family is notable in that it’s arguably the most definitive confirmation of responsibility for the opioid epidemic.

[Pullquote: “ “The Sackler family, who will pay out roughly 6 billion dollars by the time all is said and done, will be granted legal immunity from any future suits once their federal bankruptcy proceedings have settled.”]

Purdue Bankruptcy Gives Voices to Families 

As mentioned above, Purdue Pharma is owned by the Sackler family. More importantly, Purdue Pharma is the manufacturer of Oxycontin, which is widely seen as the drug that kicked off the opioid epidemic. During federal bankruptcy court in March 2022, the hearing became a notable milestone in the mission to seek justice for victims of the opioid crisis when victims whose lives were directly impacted had their chance to address members of the Sackler family. 

This hearing has been the only formal, legal platform throughout Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy process where victims were given a platform to speak directly to the family behind the corporation. 

The Sackler family, who will pay out roughly 6 billion dollars by the time all is said and done, will be granted legal immunity from any future suits once their federal bankruptcy proceedings have settled.

No amount of money can make up for the pain this epidemic has caused families, and no amount of money can bring back the lives lost.

Finding Closure for a Devastating Epidemic

We’re seeing so many states taking action against the major pharmaceutical players for the role they played in the opioid crisis. The litigation has reached such a point that many drug makers are opting for large out-of-court settlements on a state-by-state basis rather than continuing to rack up court costs.

Johnson & Johnson, McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen–four of the biggest pharmaceutical distributors in the United States–reached settlements in a number of states, amounting to $26 billion in payouts. Endo, Eva, and CVS have similarly transitioned out of court and are in the process of reaching settlements that will bring support to many of the resources that were exhausted over the course of the epidemic, including welfare, social services, emergency medical services, and the prison system.

The impact of the crisis cannot be overstated. As we’ve seen, the effects of the opioid epidemic extend far beyond the walls of hospitals and drug rehabs, even limiting access to important government services. 

There is no amount of money that can remedy the pain that has been caused to individuals, families, and even entire communities. More importantly, no amount of money can bring back the lives lost. While certainly a step toward retribution, these lawsuits do little more than bring some financial relief and perhaps a little closure.

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