Every single day in the United States alone, more than 115 people die of an overdose of opioids. These numbers have skyrocketed the past few years thanks to an increase in prescriptions and access to the drugs. In fact, 259 million prescriptions were written for opioids in 2012. This is enough to give every American adult their own bottle of pills, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicines1.
The astounding numbers about addiction and abuse are truly alarming. That’s why it’s not surprising that people from all aspects of society are worried about the opioid epidemic plaguing the country.
But, there is hope for justice. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed by individuals, cities, states, and the federal government related to opioid drugs. The targets of these lawsuits range from the distributors and manufacturers of opioids to doctors and pharmacies.
Find out more about the opioid crisis and how lawsuits may be offering a chance for some people to get their lives back on track.
What is an Opioid?
It’s a term that’s bandied about on the news and by government agencies, but most people couldn’t tell you just what an opioid actually is. An opioid is a class of drugs whose primary purpose is for pain relief.
The drugs can be made from the poppy plant — the same plant used to make opium — or synthesized in a laboratory. Opioids range from legal painkillers like morphine to illegal drugs like heroin.
Although the main function of opioids is to manage pain, they can also be used to treat other medical issues, such as coughs, diarrhea, constipation, and shortness of breath.
Opioid Withdrawal & Dangers
Opioids work by traveling through the blood and attaching to opioid receptors in the brain and other parts of the body. Opioid receptors send and receive pain signals. When the opioids inhibit the receptors, the feeling of pain is reduced and feelings of pleasure are boosted.
The same things that make opioids effective as painkillers also make them dangerous. Heavy use of opiates can cause sedation of the brain as well as slowed breathing, which could become fatal.
On top of that, the more opiates are used, the more sensitive to pain patients become. This results in people taking higher doses to maintain the same level of relief they first experienced. The longer someone uses opioids, the more they require higher doses of the drugs and the more they become addicted.
Injecting opiates is also a highly dangerous activity. Using needles can cause the spread of hepatitis C, cause vein collapse, lead to blood clots, and worse.
Brief History of the Opioid Crisis
Opioids are some of the world’s oldest known drugs, dating back thousands of years. So how did we get the point where an estimated 2 million people suffer2 from a substance use disorder related to opioids? The history of the crisis is complicated with tons of different factors contributing to the exponential growth of abuse.
Some people say the opioid epidemic was kicked off during the Civil War when almost 10 million opium pills3 were given to soldiers to manage war wounds. Countless soldiers came back from the war addicted to the drug. Use and addiction continued in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
In the 1890s, the drug company Bayer even commercialized heroin as a “non-addictive morphine substitute.” A few years later, the government and doctors wisened up to the addictiveness of the drug and ultimately banned heroin.
Drug use escalated throughout the 20th century, but it wasn’t until Purdue Pharma created a long-term painkiller called OxyContin did the modern epidemic really begin. The National Institute on Drug Abuse2 reports that pharmaceutical companies insisted opioids weren’t addictive, so doctors began prescribing them at higher rates. Over the years, drug companies also used various tactics to increase use.
Countless people took the drugs before their addictive nature came to light. By then, the market was already saturated with opioids and drug abuse.
Millions of people have been forced to break their addictions by battling harsh withdrawal symptoms that aim to keep a person dependent on the drugs.
Commonly Abused Opioid Drugs
Many different types of opioid drugs are abused — both legal and illegal. Here are a few of the most commonly abused opiates, along with just a few brand names:
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lorcet, Norco)
- Oxycodone (Oxycontin, Percodan, Percocet)
- Oxymorphone (Opana)
- Methadone (Dolophine, Methadose)
- Fentanyl (Actiq, Fentora, Duragesic)
- Hydromorphone (Dilaudid, Exalgo)
- Morphine (Avinza Orxanol, MS Contin)
- Codeine (Paracod, Tylenol 3, Robitussin)
Claims Made in Opioid Lawsuits
As a result of the massive problem opiates have caused society, people and institutions have started filing lawsuits.
Common defendants in opioid lawsuits include:
- Pharmaceutical companies
- Drug distributors
The majority of claims made by individuals or families allege that prescription opioids were responsible for someone’s addiction. Sometimes, these addictions would escalate even further and caused an individual to resort to illegal drugs and criminal activities to pay for their addictions. Other times, opioid use resulted in death from an overdose.
Different levels of government have all targeted pharmaceutical companies for their part in the opioid epidemic as well. Pharmaceutical companies have been accused of downplaying the addiction risks of their drugs and hiding the dangers of opioids. Others have been accused of aggressive and illegal marketing tactics that include false marketing and getting doctors to prescribe more opioids through incentives.
In other cases, doctors have been accused of needlessly prescribing drugs to patients despite knowing the risks and receiving kickbacks from companies. Plaintiffs also allege that pharmacies did not report suspicious prescriptions and worked in concert with doctors and pharmaceutical companies to prescribe more opiates.
Opioid Lawsuit Plaintiffs
The types of plaintiffs in opioid lawsuits range widely.
Victims & Their Families
Victims of overdose or substance abuse have filed lawsuits against everyone from doctors to pharmaceutical companies. Some lawsuits accuse pharmaceutical companies of hiding the risks of opiates and downplaying their addictiveness.
In one case, the family of a woman who died of an overdose of fentanyl sued pharmaceutical company Insys Therapeutics4 over claims that it was pushing doctors to prescribe the drug to patients who didn’t need it. The same family sued a pharmacy company for fulfilling the prescription.
Cities across the country have also filed complaints against pharmaceutical companies. Most of the lawsuits allege that the companies played a role in causing the opioid epidemic that is putting a financial burden on municipalities.
One of the most recent cities to file a lawsuit was Greenfield, Massachusetts. The city accused Purdue Pharma and AmerisourceBergen of deceptive marketing and illegally pushing opioids to people. The complaint5 said the manufacturers of the drugs “aggressively advertised to and persuaded doctors to prescribe highly addictive, dangerous opioids” and “turned patients into drug addicts for their own corporate profit.”
Like many cities, counties have filed lawsuits in an attempt to punish companies for their role in the epidemic and reclaim millions of dollars that have gone into fighting the crisis and treating people. Their goal has been to reimburse hospitals, offset the cost of increased law enforcement presence, and create more drug treatment programs.
In May 2018, Marin County in California joined hundreds of other counties across the United States in lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors. The county sued McKesson6, a pharmaceutical distributor, as well as several other companies over claims that they falsely promoted the safety of addictive opioids. Drug overdose was the leading cause of accidental deaths in the county.
At least 433 lawsuits by cities and counties against drugmakers or distributors like Purdue, Johnson & Johnson, Teva, AmerisourceBergen, and McKesson have been filed and consoliMay 16th, 2018d in courts.
Attorneys general from nearly every state have joined forces to investigate or accuse drugmakers of deceptive marketing practices related to opioids. New York and at least six other states filed lawsuits7 against Purdue Pharma over claims that the company violated state consumer protection lawsuits by falsely denying or downplaying risks of the addiction.
Some states have already filed a handful of opioid-related lawsuits, including several against the same company.
“Today’s action against Janssen is the fifth lawsuit I have filed in our ongoing fight to combat the state’s opioid epidemic,” Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear said in April 20188. “Janssen has profited from their illegal conduct, and my office is taking action to make sure they pay for ravaging our communities and destroying our families just to make a profit.”
The U.S. Department of Justice has also waded into the massive amounts of lawsuits. In February 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the department was pursuing its own actions9 against players in every level of the opioid distribution system. It was also going to assist in and join lawsuits by states and local governments.
“This epidemic actually lowered American life expectancy in 2015 and 2016 for the first time in decades, with drug overdose now the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50,” Sessions said. “These are not acceptable trends and this new task force will make us more effective in reversing them and saving Americans from the scourge of opioid addiction.”
Opioid Verdicts & Settlements
Thousands of lawsuits are still making their way through the courts or have been consoliMay 16th, 2018d by judges. However, verdicts and settlements have already been reached. Here are a few examples:
– In 2017, McKesson Corporation agreed10 to pay $150 million in civil penalties for violations of the Controlled Substances Act after settling with Justice Department.
– A manufacturer of oxycodone called Mallinckrodt Plc agreed to pay $35 million in 2015 to resolve11 probes by the federal government into how it handled reports of suspicious orders.
– The family of a man who overdosed on opioid drugs sued Dr. Michael Belfiore in a wrongful death civil suit. Belfiore was found liable, and a jury awarded12 the deceased man’s daughter $750,000.
– Costco agreed to pay $11.75 million in 2017 to settle allegations by several states that its pharmacies filled prescriptions recklessly and failed to keep records for controlled substances.