The first state trial against opioid manufacturers is set to begin today in Norman, Oklahoma. The closely watched case is the first to go to trial of thousands of lawsuits brought by states, cities, counties, and Native American tribes against pharmaceutical companies for their role in the opioid abuse crisis.
The government plaintiffs seek billions of dollars in damages, purportedly to pay for the uptick in public spending on law enforcement, prisons, treatment, and social-welfare programs since the beginning of the opioid crisis.
As I wrote last summer in National Review,
Such lawsuits are a form of legalized extortion. Countless legal products and private activities contribute to increases in government spending.
Will the government next sue Anheuser-Busch for the economic costs of alcoholism? Can a case against Ford and GM to recoup the public cost of car accidents be far behind?
Spending money to address societal ills, both old and new, is what governments do. Suing companies into paying for public costs associated with the misuse of their products is a government shakedown.
And a successful one at that! In March, Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, settled with the state of Oklahoma for $270 million. On Sunday, Israel-based defendant Teva Pharmaceutical settled for $85 million. Teva admitted to no wrongdoing.
That leaves Johnson & Johnson as the remaining defendant in the Oklahoma case. State Attorney General Mike Hunter plans to argue that Johnson & Johnson’s marketing practices created a “public nuisance” that will cost the state billions of dollars to remedy.
Earlier this month, a North Dakota judge rejected a similar argument against Purdue, saying pharmaceutical companies are not responsible for the misuse of their products.
In January, a Connecticut judge likewise dismissed 37 claims against pharmaceutical companies brought by state and local governments, calling such suits a form of “junk justice.” The Connecticut judge ruled that, as a matter of law, the municipalities are not able to prove a causal link between the company’s actions and the cost of government services nor are they able to identify specific municipal expenditures caused by specific defendants.
Despite these legal victories, some pharmaceutical companies are cutting their losses and settling.
Here’s Chairman of Purdue Pharma Steve Miller, writing in today’s Wall Street Journal:
While Purdue is prepared to defend these cases vigorously, it sees little good coming from years of litigation and appeals.
The people and communities affected by the opioid crisis need help now. Purdue understands that each day consumed by litigation is another in which critical resources don’t make it to the people who need them.
And, yet, Miller notes that the lawsuits keep coming:
[N]early 2,000 cases are still pending and more are added daily. Plaintiffs are doubling down on opioid litigation, along with a campaign of public vilification. It’s designed to damage the defendants before the true facts emerge in the legal cases.
Could it be that settlements, such as the one reached by Purdue and the state of Oklahoma, are only encouraging more lawsuits?