Can Lawsuits Help Combat Opioid Addiction?

By Paul Fuhr 10/05/17

Not everyone is convinced that the strategy works, but some legal experts maintain that these lawsuits are helping the cause. 

lawyer sitting behind the scales of justice

Government officials and lawmakers across the U.S. are trying a new approach to combat the opioid crisis: lawsuits.

According to West Virginia Public Broadcasting, the approach has already proven successful. Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, settled with the state of Kentucky for $24 million over an eight-year period.

Officials accused the Connecticut-based company of knowingly releasing a powerfully addictive prescription painkiller on the public, which helped kick off the epidemic. The Purdue Pharma settlement is just the beginning, Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear believes. “I’m not looking for punishment, I’m looking for responsibility,” he said. “And if those companies won’t take responsibility, then I’m going to see them in court.” He pointed to a number of recovery houses that would have closed had the Purdue Pharma settlement not happened. 

Nearly 60 plaintiffs through Ohio and West Virginia (including the state of Ohio itself) are following Kentucky’s lead. The Purdue Pharma settlement added wind to the plaintiffs’ sails to sue physicians, opioid manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies, and anyone else who they think is responsible for the nation’s drug epidemic.

In fact, WVPB points out that everyone from “large opioid wholesale distributors such as Cardinal Health Inc., AmerisourceBergen Corp., and McKesson Corp. to small-town pharmacies such as Larry’s Drive-In Pharmacy in Madison, West Virginia” are being targeted by the lawsuits. Lawmakers firmly believe the settlements will help create a whole new range of treatment options and offset the annual $78.5 billion toll that the opioid crisis has on the American economy. 

Not everyone is convinced by the strategy, though. Some legal experts maintain that filing a lawsuit doesn’t equal success. As it stands, most of the lawsuits hinge on the claim that the companies have “created a public nuisance”—a claim that doesn’t necessarily stand up in court. “Historically, it has been concerned with activities on land,” one legal professor observed. “A court would have to be willing to expand the traditional boundaries of public nuisance law.”

By putting companies in their crosshairs, plaintiffs will now have to prove that the companies “bear direct responsibility” in causing the opioid crisis. In past similar cases, WVPB notes “the defense has argued that there are too many steps between selling or distributing a legal substance and the damages of the crisis.” 

Many argue that winning isn’t the point, though. “The theory is that if drug companies are hit with enough lawsuits, settlement will be a better financial decision than proceeding in court,” the article said. Settlements also give defendants the opportunity to seal all records of damaging information, just like the deposition of Purdue Pharma’s former president, which included details about the company’s OxyContin marketing strategies.

The story also compared the lawsuits against opioid makers with the tobacco industry’s 1998 settlement, where almost every state sued them for Medicaid dollars. Legal experts, however, caution that countless plaintiffs could simply jump on the bandwagon and ruin the strategy.

“I think what we may end up with is something akin to an Oklahoma Land Rush,” a legal expert said. “Everybody starts piling on and the ones who manage to get judgments early in the process may end up being compensated while the other ones end up not being compensated if the companies go under.”

The article also says that the suits are preliminary (Chicago’s is the furthest along) and could take a full decade to have any impact. Regardless, lawmakers remain resolute in their race against the clock, holding out hope that the lawsuits will not only get attention, but save as many lives as possible before the clock runs out on everyone.  

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.