Effect of COVID-19 Pandemic on Opioid Crisis and Litigation

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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to plague America, worsening the opioid crisis that has plagued the nation for decades, litigation to recoup the cost of fighting the opioid crisis has stalled. While local and state governments await desperately needs funds to continue to provide services in support of those plagued by addiction to opioids, the defendants responsible are filing bankruptcy to skirt financial responsibility and hide the full extent of their involvement, or attempting to use the COVID epidemic to revitalize their public image.

Opioid litigation is resuming nationwide after courts have been closed for months in response to Covid. Forty-nine states are seeking $2.15 trillion from Purdue Pharma alone; Oklahoma has opted out due to a previous settlement with the company. U.S. prosecutors are pursuing $13 billion in civil and criminal fines against the company whose aggressive marketing of its opioid Oxycontin arguably began the epidemic. Purdue Pharma recently filed bankruptcy in order to skirt responsibility for the mounting opioid losses and to attempt to hide from public view damning internal documents show the extent of liability of the pharmaceutical company and the Sackler family who owns and managed the drug giant.

Meanwhile, New York has begun the first lawsuit putting the entire opioid supply chain on trial. The trial is significant and will give other plaintiffs a view of the evident to support different theories of liability.

“This will be the first time the public hears the whole dirty story, the whole integration of the opioid sales chain, which is how it ended up flooding the market,” said Hunter Shkolni, who represents some plaintiff municipalities.

Last year, Johnson & Johnson was described as a “drug kingpin” by Oklahoma’s attorney general. J&J was ordered to pay $465 million in damages to recover the enormous financial burden the epidemic has placed on the state. The drug company also agreed to pay $20.4 million in claims to two Ohio counties and is named as a defendant in the multi-district class action brought by thousands of city, states, and local government agencies opioid manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacies.

In addition to opioids, Johnson & Johnson’s reputation and stocks have been marred by a list of pending lawsuits for their other products, including Risperdal, pelvic mesh, DePuy, Xarelto, and talcum powder.

In October 2019, J&J was ordered to pay $8 billion in punitive damages for failure to warn of breast growth in young men who take its antipsychotic drug Risperdal. The verdict was later reduced upon appeal, which plaintiffs attorneys have vowed to further appeal. Sheller PC is one of the firms representing the plaintiff.

“Johnson & Johnson is a company which has lost its way” and the jury had chosen to impose punitive damages “on a corporation that valued profits over safety and profits over patients.” Attorneys for Nichcolas Murray said in a statement.

Public trust in the household name has fallen dramatically and yet earlier this month Johnson & Johnson announced a $1 billion agreement with the U.S. government to provide 100 million doses of a covid-19 vaccine that is still in development. A vaccine that has been given complete immunity from liability for any injuries it may cause.

J&J’s CEO Alex Gorsky, who played a pivotal role in the Risperdal scandal (read America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker), recently assured investors “we’re facing arguably one of the most serious health challenges the world has ever faced, but we’re doing our absolute very best to make sure we can navigate our way through.”

Earlier this year in a PBS Frontline exclusive, former Insys executive Alec Burlakoff admitted to knowingly orchestrating and scheming to boost sales of the companies powerful opioids because he believed there would be no consequences personally and the fines the company might pay are routinely written off as the cost of doing business. Burlakoff was one of only a few pharmaceutical executives to receive any jail time in connection to the opioid crisis. Insys has filed bankruptcy.

Pharmaceutical companies and their executives rarely face criminal charges because it is believed to be bad for public health and the health care industry. 

“They’re going to have to answer for what they’ve done. They’re not going to be allowed to just walk away and say, well, a couple hundred million dollars is the best we can do,” said Gerard Stranch, an attorney representing Tennessee communities. However, ”even if you took all their money, you’re not going to be able to right the harm they’ve done. The amount of damage is simply too great.”

49 states file $2.15 trillion opioid epidemic lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, Becker’s Hospital Review, August 18, 2020

States Seeks $26.4 Billion From Drug Companies in Opioid Litigation, Wall Street Journal, August 18, 2020

The New Fight to Hold Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers Accountable for the Opioid Crisis, The Intercept, July 29, 2020

Entire Opioid Supply Chain Faces First Test in New York Case, Bloomberg Law, August 13, 2020

U.S. Pursues Nearly $13 Billion of Claims in Purdue Pharma Opioid Probes-Sources, Claims Journal, August 5, 2020

Opioid Scandal Haunts Drug Companies As They Respond to Pandemic, NPR, August 10, 2020

Drug Companies Face lawsuits From Opioid Crisis As they Respond to the Pandemic, NPR,  August 7, 2020

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