Westmoreland, Pa. watch ‘historic’ $270M settlement in Oklahoma opioid lawsuit
The potential impact of a $270 million settlement announced Tuesday between a drug manufacturer and the state of Oklahoma remains to be seen when it comes to dozens of similar lawsuits filed in Pennsylvania, including one by Westmoreland County officials in 2017.
But experts said it could be a model for such lawsuits nationwide.
“I think that’s certainly a very good sign,” said Richard Ausness, law professor at the University of Kentucky.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter on Tuesday said that a judge approved the state’s “historic agreement” with Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. Purdue Pharma will contribute $102.5 million to a new addiction research and treatment center at Oklahoma State University and make an annual payment of $15 million for five years.
The settlement “is only the first step in the ultimate goal of ending this nightmarish epidemic,” Hunter said. Other payments by Purdue include $20 million in treatment and rescue drugs, $12 million to municipalities and $60 million in state attorneys’ fees.
Purdue was pleased to reach an agreement with Oklahoma to help people struggling with addiction, company CEO and President Craig Landau said in a statement.
“Purdue has a long history of working to address the problem of prescription opioid abuse and diversion,” Landau said. “We see this agreement with Oklahoma as an extension of our commitment to help drive solutions to the opioid addiction crisis, and we pledge Purdue’s ongoing support to the National Center and the lifesaving work it will do for generations to come.”
Ausness compared the situation to a similar one two decades ago when the tobacco industry paid $200 billion to settle suits brought by 46 state attorneys general.
“I don’t know if that reasoning would necessarily apply to the opioid litigation, you’ve got so many more parties involved,” he said.
Seton Hall University professor John Jacobi was pleased to see the settlement funds be directed to reducing the opioid crisis.
“Trying to get ahead of the issues of overdose and addiction by treating them as a public health crisis is really important, but it needs money,” he said.
Nearly 2,000 lawsuits are pending nationwide against Stamford, Conn.-based Purdue, the Associated Press reported.
Westmoreland County sued nearly two dozen drug makers, distributors and leading U.S. pain doctors. Among the defendants are Purdue and two of its related companies; Teva Pharmaceuticals (maker of Actiq and Fentora, through Cephalon); Johnson & Johnson (maker of Duragesic, through Janssen); and Endo Health Solutions (maker of Opana and Percocet); and others.
The county’s lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, claims the opioid addiction crisis has left an expensive and lasting impact, from drug overdose deaths and increased court caseloads to babies being born addicted to drugs. It has been consolidated in Delaware County with more than two dozen similar cases filed across Pennsylvania.
Attorney Robert Peirce, who is representing Westmoreland County, said Purdue settled before the Oklahoma trial date, which is set for late May. The consolidated Pennsylvania case is scheduled for trial next year.
Lawsuits filed by governments across the country contend U.S. drug manufacturers, distributors and doctors contributed to the epidemic by marketing dangerous opioids that they knew were addictive and caused significant side effects. Purdue reportedly has made more than $35 billion since its brand-name narcotic painkiller OxyContin hit the market in 1996. Many cases from across the country are consolidated in a Cleveland federal court.
Jacobi said he expects a few federal and state “bellwether” cases to go to trial at some point.
“That will give everybody a sense of what kind of exposure they’re looking at,” he said.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has been working with a coalition of attorneys general nationwide to investigate manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioids.
“As part of that investigation, we remain engaged in a process organized by the federal court in Cleveland,” spokesman Joe Grace said. “Should those negotiations reach a point requiring additional legal steps, our office will not hesitate to take action against the pharmaceutical industry for its role in fueling the opioid crisis across our country.”
Trials in Cleveland are set to start in October, according to a joint statement from the three attorneys heading up the National Prescription Opiate Litigation — Paul J. Hanly Jr. of Simmons Hanly Conroy; Paul T. Farrell Jr. of Greene Ketchum, Farrell, Bailey & Tweel; and Joe Rice of Motley Rice.
“This settlement is another reflection of the extraordinary importance and strength of the claims against Purdue Pharma,” the statement said, adding that Purdue and nearly two dozen more defendants face federal litigation.
Oklahoma prosecutors are preparing for trial with the remaining three defendants in their case.
Landau previously told the Washington Post that bankruptcy is an “option.” Hunter told reporters that the agreement is “bankruptcy-proof.”
“We’ve gone to great lengths to ensure that this is real money, that it’s not at risk in the event Purdue declares bankruptcy,” the Oklahoma governor said.
Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta at 724-837-5374, [email protected] or via Twitter .