Jury Trial Over Drug Makers’ Role in Opioid Addiction Crisis Underway in California

A trial is underway in California which presents claims against Johnson & Johnson, Teva, Endo, Allergan and other drug manufacturers who allegedly fueled the opioid addiction crisis, which is being closely watched as a “bellwether” for how other juries will respond to similar claims being presented nationwide.

Following delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a jury in Orange County Superior Court began hearing evidence virtually on Monday in a $50 billion lawsuit brought by a number of California communities, which seeks damages for costs associated with the opioid crisis that has caused nearly 500,000 overdose deaths nationwide.

Plaintiffs allege the drug makers engaged in years of deceptive marketing which downplayed the addiction risks associated with opioids, and selling the powerful pain medications in a reckless manner.

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Communities nationwide are continuing to deal with the opioid crisis, which claims more and more lives each year due to accidental or intentional overdoses involving the powerful and addictive pain medications.

In 2013, opioid overdoses accounted for 3,100 deaths, but that number surpassed 36,00 deaths by 2019. Federal health officials now warn that opioids account for nearly 70% of all drug overdoses and Americans are more likely to die from an opioid overdose than from a car crash.

In recent years much attention has focused on doctor prescribing habits and how they contribute to the development of the opioid crisis. Data indicates roughly one-third to half of all patients don’t need opioids to treat their pain and are prescribed the narcotic painkillers inappropriately. Many doctors prescribe more opioids than they realize, often because they are rewarded by drug companies to prescribe more painkillers.

The opioid trial underway in California is the second case to go before a jury out of thousands of lawsuits brought nationwide against drug manufacturers, particularly by cities, states and other municipalities who say illegal marketing practices and a failure to warn the medical community and patients of the risks of these drugs led to massive loss of life and severely burdened the health care system.

In 2019, Oklahoma was awarded $572 million in an opioid lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson in the first case to go to trial. That verdict was later reduced to $465 million, and is still pending on appeal. However, further trials expected to begin last year were delayed amid disruptions throughout the judicial system during the coronavirus pandemic.

The virtual trial includes claims on behalf of several California counties, including Santa Clara, Los Angeles and Orange counties, as well as the city of Oakland. Together the communities want the companies to pay $50 billion for creating a deadly public nuisance.

Defendants say they distributed drugs approved by the FDA and their contributions to the overall opioid market were small.

While the outcome will not have a binding impact on other claims, the trial is being closely watched to gauge how juries may respond to certain evidence and testimony that will be repeated throughout the claims. In addition, the jury’s decision will likely have a major impact on settlement negotiations in the litigation.

AmerisourceBergen Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., Johnson & Johnson, and McKesson Corporation, the largest drug distributors in the U.S., have already proposed a $26 billion settlement to resolve more than 3,300 opioid crisis lawsuits filed by communities and states nationwide.

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