The opioid crisis has destroyed careers, families and the lives of countless Americans. Last year alone, more than 72,000 people perished from drug overdoses, a large percentage of which overdosed on legally prescribed medications.
While no legal measures can entirely obliterate the risk of people abusing drugs, those who create and distribute dangerous substances share responsibility for creating this disaster and should compensate innocent victims.
The Legal Precedence for Claims
Many current lawsuits filed against pharmaceutical companies and their distributors point to the settlements demanded from cigarette and tobacco moguls who deliberately misled the public on the dangers of nicotine and other carcinogens. Given advances in medical record-keeping technology, attorneys today can avail themselves of much more documentation to support claims against those they deem liable.
However, unlike tobacco, opioid medications hold FDA approval, and many harmed by the epidemic used these drugs as prescribed by their doctors. Another factor impacting the viability of legal claims involves the fact that many patients who use opioids also take other prescription and OTC medications, making it as difficult to determine which substance caused the harm as it is to establish liability in food poisoning cases.
Sometimes the link between opioid overdose and personal injury appears clear, but oftentimes a singular cause cannot be established.
Other prosecutors, such as those in the trial of AZ pharmaceutical bigwig John Kapoor, have turned to federal racketeering and conspiracy law to bring justice to victims. Racketeering occurs when criminals conspire to commit unlawful acts, called rackets, often behind the scenes of doing legitimate business.
Federal prosecutors allege Kapoor and other company executives used deception and bribery to encourage doctors to prescribe a powerful Fentanyl nasal spray nearly indiscriminately. Should they prevail, other attorneys will no doubt follow their precedent.
1. The Purdue Pharmaceutical Scandal
The billionaire Sackler family receives honors and awards for their philanthropy worldwide, but the Massachusetts attorney general alleges several family members who serve as executives of Purdue Pharma of deliberately deceiving patients and physicians about the dangers of Oxycontin.
They accuse Purdue Pharma of encouraging patients to stay on excessively long doses of the opioid-based pain med by issuing prescription discount cards. The longer patients continue taking opioids, the greater the possibility that they’ll develop an addiction.
The suit also alleges that board members, including eight members of the Sackler family, deliberately encouraged prescribing stronger doses of opioids than necessary to alleviate pain. Internal documents strongly suggest that Purdue executives knew of the dangers of addiction from hefty doses of these medications but nevertheless put profit before patients’ needs.
Opioid addiction causes intense and sometimes deadly withdrawal symptoms, but only approximately 20 percent of patients receive medicines to ease the agony. Ironically enough, Purdue Pharma recently landed a patent for such a drug.
2. Cherokee Nation v. Walgreens, CVS and Walmart
A slightly different lawsuit lays the blame for the opioid crisis firmly at the feet of those who distribute medications, not just the manufacturers. Members of Cherokee Nation filed lawsuits against America’s most frequently used pharmacies, Walgreens, CVS and Walmart.
The lawsuit accuses these pharmacies of negligence, saying they failed to take measures to prevent tribal members from filling illegal opioid prescriptions. Prosecutors allege that these companies filled the scrips of known doctor-shoppers, leading many members of the Cherokee Nation to develop addictions.
3. Abbott and Allergan
Prosecutors in St. Clair County, Illinois accuse the pharmaceutical company Abbott of using marketing rather than patient need to spur additional sales of opioid-based medications. Other communities have since followed suit by filing similar claims.
Abbott insists that the liability should fall on Purdue Pharma, with whom they partnered in advertising stronger opioid formulations.
Allergan seeks recompense from Pfizer for damages suffered for the sale of Kadian, a morphine-like medication, claiming any illicit marketing ploys occurred before the manufacturer bought the rights for the medication in 2008. Pfizer denies the allegations. The case highlights the severity of the opioid crisis as pharmaceutical companies now seek to launch preemptive strikes to indemnify themselves against the ever-growing numbers of lawsuits.
4. Strippers Pushing Opioids?
In the trial against John Kapoor of Insys pharmaceuticals, Arizona prosecutors allege the company bribed doctors to prescribe Subsys, a powerful opioid meant for use only by terminal cancer patients. Kapoor and other Insys executives allegedly wined and dined physicians at posh locations to convince them to prescribe the drug for off-label uses. As one example, prosecutors allege Insys even paid for a $1,000 private champagne room at a high class strip club.
Helping Those Struggling with Addiction
While many lawsuits against opioid manufacturers remain in pending status, countless patients still experience painful withdrawal symptoms, often with little aid. Those suspecting a loved one of falling victim to opioid addiction should seek out quality medical care to help ease their transition back to sobriety.
With opioid addiction growing, future legal action will hopefully dissuade pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors from using deceptive marketing techniques and filling illegal opioid prescriptions. Our justice system exists in large part to remedy the harm innocent people suffer at the hands of others, and one can only hope cracking down on suppliers will lead to decreased demands for addictive pain medications.
Kate Harveston is a young writer pursuing a career in journalism. She holds a Bachelors in English and minored in Criminal Justice, so she enjoys writing about anything related to politics, law and culture and last wrote for LawFuel about issues faced by women lawyers. If you would like to read more of her work, you can visit her blog, Only Slightly Biased.