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Opioid Lawsuits

Opioid lawsuits allege opioid manufacturers caused the opioid crisis through deceptive marketing practices, misrepresenting that opioids had a low risk of addiction and touting benefits without disclosing the medication’s risks. Several drug makers and distributors have agreed to billions in settlements.

Last Modified: April 1, 2024
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The opioid crisis began in the late 1990s. It started with Purdue Pharma’s drug OxyContin. Drug companies began telling the medical community that opioid drugs had a low risk of addiction, and health care providers began prescribing them at higher rates, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In 2012, opioid prescriptions peaked at more than 255 million. In 2017, more than 47,000 Americans died of an opioid overdose, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That same year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a national emergency.

While states and municipalities have filed the majority of lawsuits, some lawyers are also taking cases from individuals who suffered losses because of the opioid crisis.

Why Suits Are Being Filed

States and municipalities are filing lawsuits to recover costs associated with the opioid epidemic. Individuals and their families are filing lawsuits to recover damages caused by addiction and the loss of loved ones who overdosed.

The central claim to all opioid lawsuits is that drug manufacturers and distributors improperly marketed and distributed opioids to states, cities and towns across the United States. This improper marketing and distribution led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

“From 2000 through 2011, the number of prescriptions for the Manufacturer Defendants’ opioid drugs more than quadrupled nationwide, even though there was no scientific basis for any significant increase in opioid treatment as medically necessary or appropriate,” according to a lawsuit filed by Letitia James, attorney general for the State of New York.

Specific allegations include:
  • Manufacturers overstated the benefits and downplayed opioid addiction and other risks
  • Manufacturers aggressively marketed their products directly to physicians and by paying “key opinion leaders” to publish articles promoting opioid benefits
  • Manufacturers funded “front organizations” that published information about the benefits of opioids without warning about the risks
  • Distributors failed to monitor, investigate, detect and report suspicious orders for prescription opioids

Government Investigations

Senator Claire McCaskill of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee conducted an investigation into opioid distributors and manufacturers and released a series of reports from 2017 to 2018.

These included Fueling an Epidemic: Exposing the Financial Ties Between Opioid Manufacturers and Third Party Advocacy Groups and Fueling an Epidemic: A Flood of 1.6 Billion Doses of Opioids into Missouri and the Need for Stronger DEA Enforcement.

Some allegations in lawsuits are based on information contained in these reports.

Fueling an Epidemic: Exposing the Financial Ties Between Opioid Manufacturers and Third Party Advocacy Groups

This report exposed the millions of dollars in payments from opioid manufacturers to 14 outside groups and physicians in these groups working on chronic pain and other opioid-related issues from 2012 to 2017.

“Initiatives from the groups in this report often echoed and amplified messages favorable to increased opioid use—and ultimately, the financial interests of opioid manufacturers,” report authors wrote.

Fueling an Epidemic: A Flood of 1.6 Billion Doses of Opioids into Missouri and the Need for Stronger DEA Enforcement

This report focused on three major drug distributors — McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, and Cardinal Health — failed to properly report suspicious opioid orders in Missouri. The report found evidence that companies “knew or should have known that hundreds of millions of pills were ending up on the black market.”

Investigators found three large distributors — McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, and Cardinal Health — shipped about 1.6 billion dosage units of opioids to the state from 2012 to 2017. This equals about 52 dosages per person in Missouri.

“These ‘big three’ distributors have also consistently failed to meet their reporting obligations over the past ten years—in some cases surrendering licenses for distribution facilities and paying escalating fines after DEA and Department of Justice investigations,” report authors wrote.

Who Is Being Sued?

Companies being sued in opioid lawsuits include several manufacturers and distributors of opioid medications.

Defendants in lawsuits include:
  • Allergan
  • AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation
  • Cardinal Health Inc.
  • Costco
  • CVS
  • Endo Health Solutions and its affiliates
  • Endo International and its affiliates
  • Janssen Pharmaceuticals and its affiliates (including its parent company Johnson & Johnson)
  • Mallinckrodt LLC and its affiliates
  • McKesson Corporation
  • Purdue Pharma and its affiliates
  • Rite-Aid Corporation
  • Rochester Drug Cooperative Inc.
  • Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc. and its affiliates; and Allergan Finance LLC and its affiliates.
  • Walgreens
  • Wal-Mart

Status of Lawsuits

Opioid litigation is ongoing, and there have been settlement agreements with several states and municipalities.

In December 2017, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation centralized 46 actions in the Southern District of Ohio under Judge Dan A. Polster in MDL number 2804. Since then, the number of lawsuits has grown.

As of April 2024, 3,060 lawsuits were still pending in the MDL.

Aside from the MDL, several counties and cities have cases that remain in all 50 state courts across the country. More than 30,000 counties and cities could potentially join settlement proceedings.

Because of the size of the litigation, members of the Plaintiff’s Executive Committee (PEC) for the MDL petitioned for a new kind of class called a Negotiation Class Action in June 2019. It’s the first of its kind. All counties and cities in the MDL and out of the MDL are eligible to be a part of this class to help facilitate settlements.

The Court authorized the Negotiation Class to negotiate with 13 defendants and their affiliates in September 2019. But this class does not apply to non-county or city plaintiffs, such as Indian Tribes or individuals. The class will last until September 2024.

Government Settlements

Drug companies and distributors have agreed to billions in settlements to the Department of Justice, states and municipalities.

One of the first settlements came in 2015 when Purdue Pharma agreed to pay the State of Kentucky $24 million. Kentucky’s lawsuits claimed that Purdue misled the public about the addictiveness of prescription opioids.

Since then, there have been billions in settlements.

2016 – Cardinal Health
$44 million to the United States for alleged violations of the Controlled Substances Act in Maryland, Florida and New York
2017 – Cardinal Health
$20 million to the state of West Virginia for distribution of opioids in the state between 2007 and 2012
2017 – Costco Wholesale
$11.75 million to the United States for allegations it violated the Controlled Substances Act
2017 – Mallinckrodt (MNK)
$35 million to the United States to resolve allegations of improper reporting of suspicious orders of controlled substances
2017 – McKesson
$150 million to the United States for failure to report suspicious orders of pharmaceuticals in Colorado, Ohio, Michigan and Florida
2019 – Johnson & Johnson
$572 million to the state of Oklahoma for causing the opioid crisis in the state
2019 – Purdue
$12 billion to several state and local governments including $3 billion from the Sackler family, the drug company’s founders
2019 - McKesson Corp., AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, Teva Pharmaceuticals
$260 million to Cuyahoga and Summit counties in Ohio
2020 - Mallinckrodt (MNK)
$1.6 billion to several states and municipalities in the MDL
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