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Another Casualty of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Resolution of Opioid Litigation

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause countless disruptions to everyday life, including resolution of one of the largest civil cases in U.S. history — the landmark opioid litigation.

Tens of billions of dollars are at stake as more than 3,000 cities, towns, municipalities and Native American tribes seek a settlement in trials against some of the largest drug manufacturers, distributors and pharmacists over their alleged roles in excessive opioid prescriptions.

The coronavirus pandemic recently forced the delay of two major federal opioid trials, one in Ohio and the other in West Virginia.

“The concept of a speedy trial or the right to a trial, we’ve lost that,” plaintiff attorney Joe Rice told The Washington Post.

The trial delays come at a time when opioid overdose deaths jumped 38% in the 12 months ending May 2020, according to recently released data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Public health officials are worried that the additional stress of the coronavirus pandemic — such work-from-home arrangements and parents being forced to run remote school for their children — are worsening mental health and opioid addiction tendencies as people struggle to cope with daily life.

Delaying the trials also reduces the likelihood that the defendants would pursue a settlement, which will probably cause delays in getting funds to the plaintiffs at a time when opioid deaths are rising.

Late last year, four major defendants in the nationwide opioid litigation — Johnson & Johnson, McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen — offered a $26 billion settlement in one major case.

The distributors shipped more than three-fourths of the nation’s opioids to pharmacies, sometimes in enormous quantities that didn’t align with local populations.

In one case, over the course of a decade, nearly 21 million prescription painkillers including oxycodone and hydrocodone were shipped to two pharmacies located just a few blocks apart in the small town of Williamson, West Virginia. Fewer than 3,000 people lived there.

If approved, the $26 billion settlement would remove the risk of future opioid lawsuits by the governments involved in the litigation. The defendants also agreed to strengthen their drug monitoring programs.

Thousands of other cases are pending against additional drug manufacturers and national pharmacy chains.

When will they get their day in court? Maybe not for a while yet.

Hall Booth Smith’s (HBS) Opioid Task Force was created to defend physicians, surgeons, pain management specialists and other health care providers as well as physician groups, hospitals, surgical centers, urgent care clinics and other organizations on the full range of opioid and prescription-related claims they may face. For more information about HBS’s Opioid Task Force, please contact Partner J. Brent Allen.