New York’s opioid case marks the first government jury trial during the epidemic.
New York state, and Suffolk and Nassau counties, have alleged that drug makers deceptively promoted addictive opioids as safe, and that distributors ignored red flags of large orders that were being diverted for illegal use. Now, these allegations will be heard by a jury.
Suffolk and Nassau Counties as well as New York Attorney General Letitia James are pursuing the litigation. The trial marks the first time governments’ claims concerning the crisis will be heard jury. Jayne Conroy is representing Suffolk County, Hunter Shkolnik is representing Nassau County and John Oleske is representing the state.
Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Endo International, and Abbvie Inc’s Allergan “misleadingly marketed opioid drugs as having a low addiction risk,” said Conroy to jurors. “The drug makers and the nation’s largest drug distributors – AmerisourceBergen Corp, Cardinal Health Inc. and McKesson Corp. – failed to report suspicious opioid orders as required.”
Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N), had also been a defendant with claims against it set to be heard, but the company recently announced it will settle to avoid trial. The more than $200 million in settlement funds will be distributed according to an accelerated payment schedule to fund addiction treatment and abatement related to opioid use disorder (OUD) in New York communities who have struggled amid the epidemic. These payments will be allocated over nine years. Also, as part of the settlement, the drug maker could pay $30 million more in the first year if New York’s “executive chamber signs into law new legislation creating an opioid settlement fund,” according to the press release from AG Letitia James’ office.
“This additional amount results from continued negotiations and is intended to maximize participation in the settlement,” J&J wrote in a statement. The company was quick to add, however, that the “settlement is not an admission of liability or wrongdoing, and the company will continue to defend against any litigation that the final agreement does not resolve. The settlement will provide certainty for involved parties and critical assistance for families and communities in need.”
As for the jury trial, Conroy said, “Profits soared, and our communities were devastated. Manufacturers and distributors control the valve to stop the flood of opioids. They have their hands on this.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that nearly 500,000 people died from opioid overdoses in the United States in the ten-year span from 1999 to 2019 (the last year for which data is available). And more than 3,000 lawsuits have been filed in the United States against drug makers, distributors, and pharmacies across the nation.
U.S. District Judge Dan Polster, during a hearing in Cleveland, Ohio, said that a plan brought forth by the attorneys representing the cities and counties involved in the consolidated opioid litigation “could allow companies accused of fueling the epidemic in nearly 2,000 lawsuits before him an ability to obtain global peace.” Non-jury trials are also in progress in cases brought against the four drug makers by several counties in California, and against the three distributors in West Virginia.