Will justice be served in opioid civil lawsuits?

Samuel Ogali , Courier Staff

The U.S. judicial system is about to take on the largest civil action in the history of the United States, and no, I’m not talking about actions against the president. This week begins the first set of trials against six companies in response to the over 200,000 overdose victims of the opioid epidemic.

The case will be a conglomerate of multiple lawsuits being placed around the country against pharmaceutical companies, drug distribution companies and retailers (like Walgreens), who the plaintiffs believe purposefully contributed to the current state of the opioid epidemic. Why should the outcome of this case be of concern to the average U.S. citizen? How about the fact that this case will serve as a precedent for future cases surrounding this issue, and potentially, future cases that work to hold industries accountable? Indeed, this controversial issue places a lot at stake for both sides of the aisle.

The main challenge for this civil lawsuit will be to determine who is to blame and how much of that blame should be attributed to each group. This will be a heavy challenge to accomplish due to the complexity of the issue. Since the drugs in question cannot be obtained by the consumers themselves, it is hard to argue that people became addicted by their own accord. The system itself was (somewhat) designed to control the use of opioids and prevent addiction from happening. Acquiring the drugs requires a prescription from a health care provider, and drug distributors were supposed to monitor large shipments of opioids to ensure providers were prescribing appropriately. Yet, clearly these checkpoints failed and the question of why that is remains.

The plaintiffs are claiming that the accused companies are guilty of attributing to the epidemic through a variety of actions. One claim is that the manufacturers of the drugs were misleading in their marketing, implying that the drugs were less addictive and dangerous than they were really known to be. Other claims state that companies were turning a blind eye to large orders in order to increase profits. If either of these claims is true, then it seems obvious to me that these companies should be held accountable.

Unfortunately, even if the plaintiffs are capable of convincing the jurors of the involvement of these companies in the epidemic, the damages paid will in no way fix the problem. Indeed, estimates indicate that hundreds of billions of dollars have been lost due to the opioid epidemic (considering healthcare costs, legal costs and lost lifetime earnings). Yet, when discussing potential settlements, companies are only offering between $20 million and $50 billion. Even if the courts demand greater monetary payments than those offered in the attempted settlements, it is unlikely to amount to what is needed to fully address the ongoing problem. So then, what is the main benefit of pursuing these cases? In my opinion, it comes down to bringing continued focus on the issue, and holding companies accountable when they negatively impact society.

Although we cannot undo what has already been done, we can work to prevent such an event from happening again. By taking these companies to court and bringing to light unethical and corrupt practices, it may provide a deterrent for these actions by future companies. More importantly, it may highlight the inherent issues present in our health system and our treatment of healthcare as a business.

As the trial proceeds in the upcoming weeks, it will be interesting to see how the cards unfold. Will the associated parties be found guilty of the charges? Will those who have been most impacted by the epidemic receive the justice they seek? Will our country come together and do what is necessary to fix the inherent issues that led to an epidemic of this magnitude? The answers to these questions will only be revealed in time.