The Opioid Settlement (and what it means to you)

An opioid settlement is coming.  How much money is in it for you?  If you have suffered, it is a fair question.  But this is a different kind of opioid settlement.

Thousands of counties, townships and local jurisdictions from across the country are currently suing a group of pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and sell prescription opioid painkillers. The local jurisdictions are seeking money to reimburse them for the billions of dollars they have been forced to spend in response to the opioid abuse epidemic. After months of little or no movement in this matter, reports came out last week suggesting that a global settlement proposal may finally be in the works.

The Scope of the Opioid Settlement

antibiotics-300x200Attorneys for the local jurisdictions gathered in Ohio last month to announce a massive settlement plan to provide fair compensation for a national health crisis that has been crippling communities. The size and scope of the proposed settlement is massive. It would allow all 24,500 individual jurisdictions to receive shares in a multi-billion dollar compensation fund paid for by the various opioid drug manufacturers. The proposal would sweep all the local government plaintiffs into one represented group and reach a single settlement.

This opioid lawsuit involving thousands of local jurisdictions is just one of the countless other opioid-related lawsuits that have been filed throughout the U.S.  There are currently over 1,800 lawsuits currently pending in the federal court system that are directly related to the opioid epidemic. Drug manufacturers such as Purdue and Johnson & Johnson continue to deny any responsibility for the death and human destruction that abuse of their pain medications has caused.

The announcement of the settlement proposal by attorneys for the local jurisdictions did not include details about the total amount of the compensation package or similar details. The 24,500 local governments covered by the settlement plan must now review the proposal and vote on whether to approve it. If 75% of the jurisdictions vote in favor of the plan (my guess is the manufacturers would settle a lower percentage if it comes to it), it will be submitted to the Court for further consideration and proceedings. Any local jurisdiction that is not satisfied with the final deal can opt out. If approved, the settlement proposal would distribute compensation to the participating jurisdictions based on the following criteria:

  • total number of diagnosed cases of opioid addiction in the jurisdiction;
  • total number of opioid deaths in the jurisdiction; and
  • the volume of prescription opioids estimated to have been legally distributed by drug manufacturers within the jurisdiction.

The idea behind this system is to allocate greater shares of the compensation fund to jurisdictions that have been hardest hit by opioid abuse.  This certainly makes sense.

Despite the scope of the proposal, there are still concerns over whether or not the bill will truly tackle the issue of compensation. Some are also worried that drug manufacturers will end up paying out billions of dollars in damages to the local governments who opted in for the settlement, but will still have to face continuing litigation from those governments that were not included.  (This is true with any mass tort settlement.) Proponents of the plan argue that the settlement will provide enough money to bring closure to the opioid crisis and start repairing affected communities.

That might be a little bit ambitious.  Ultimately this all about compensation.  The governments banding together have terrified the opioid manufacturers.

One well-known supporter of the settlement plan is U.S. District Judge Dan A. Polster in the Northern District of Ohio. Polster, who is currently overseeing more than 1,900 lawsuits surrounding the opioid crisis, has spoken out about the idea of a national settlement. He has called the plan a “novel approach” to the issue, commending its innovative nature and the possibility of providing much-needed relief to local governments around the country.

Last year, due to common questions of fact and law raised in Polster’s opioid crisis claims, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) created centralized MDL proceedings for the opioid cases. MDLs are a common method of consolidating related cases for discovery and pretrial proceedings. Polster is just one example of the many judges nationwide that are receiving more and more cases related to opioid abuse.

The Growing American Opioid Crisis

The proposed settlement plan has received support from communities that have been suffering from opioid addiction, as deaths from opioid overdoses have been increasing within recent years. Some communities have been devastated from the crisis, despite strong efforts to bring awareness to the issue and distributing resources to those afflicted.

Deaths from drug overdoses outnumber those killed by guns and car crashes combined, and within the last sixteen years more than 560,000 people have died from an overdose. In 2017 alone, there were 47,600 deaths associated with opioids. The leading opioids being abused include Percocet, Oxycontin, heroin, and fentanyl. Fentanyl has become infamous for being the frontrunner of drugs causing overdoses, with very small amounts being lethal.

Every day more than 90 Americans are killed by an opioid overdose, an epidemic that has cost the country nearly $80 billion in damages. There have been some efforts to control the crisis, with prescriptions for opioids being labeled as narcotics, restricting the number of pills given in one bottle, and refills needing approval by a doctor. Despite this, opioids continue to rapidly spread through cities, as underground dealers and corrupt physicians help keep people addicted.

People who become addicted to opioids are more likely to start their addiction from an authorized prescription rather than someone selling them on the street. People who have gone through surgeries, even ones that are considered to be minor, are often prescribed an opioid for pain. This leads someone from trying to legally relieve their pain to becoming reliant and illegally searching out more pills. This kind of addiction process has led to a shift in what kind of person is typically imagined when hearing the term “addict”. Middle and upper-class communities have been ravaged by opioids, with the problem often becoming a well-known secret around the neighborhood. The crisis not expected to improve in coming years, motivating citizens and lawmakers to push harder than ever for comprehensive relief efforts.

Individual Victim Opioid Lawsuits

So if you were an opioid addict or lost a loved one to opioids and you want to go after the manufacturers, what does this settlement mean for you? Not much.  Lawyers are going after these cases.  Just google “opioid victim lawsuit” and you will find lots of lawyers who are literally paying to talk to you about your case.  I’m more skeptical.  Our firm is not taking claims from opioid victims.  I am pessimistic about the chances of success for these cases. But they are going to be filed and litigated and we are going to find out.