Don’t look now, but the clock is ticking — and a pile of money accumulating — as drug companies that made huge profits from peddling death and misery through opioids distribution have begun looking for a way out from under some 2,000 pending lawsuits filed by local and state governments.

And that list includes, naturally enough, the state of North Carolina, Winston-Salem, Forsyth County and surrounding counties.

Any state (or county) that hasn’t filed a lawsuit to recoup some of the billions of dollars they spent fighting a losing battle against opioid addiction and abuse is just plain negligent.

The fact that on Monday a judge in Oklahoma ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay the state $572 million for its role in escalating the opioid epidemic and the resulting damage, and the news Wednesday that Purdue Pharma, the maker of the opioid OxyContin, is negotiating its own settlement, which could be as high as $12 billion, tells us this is so.

Still, counties (and states) — and the taxpayers who fund them — needn’t alert the accountants just yet.

“It is getting a lot of play, and that will help people talk to each other,” said Garry Whitaker, a Winston-Salem lawyer who represents the city, Forsyth County and many nearby counties in their lawsuits.

Many lawsuits, same themes

By “talk to each other,” Whitaker really means local governments and drug manufacturers and distributors, through their attorneys, negotiate an eye-popping settlement.

It’s complicated — name one thing that involves a boatload of lawyers that isn’t — but this is roughly how the situation is unspooling:

More than 2,300 lawsuits have been filed against an array of drug manufacturers and distributors. The list includes all the big names — Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. — and trial materials gathered so far puts some large chain pharmacies in a bad light.

If you hadn’t seen it yet, go back and read an article in Sunday’s Winston-Salem Journal that shows just how many pills were distributed between 2006 and 2012 just in this area. The numbers are staggering:

  • Some 80.3 OxyContin and oxycodone pills per person per year in Surry County.
  • 38.4 per person per year in Forsyth County.
  • A statewide average of 42.9.

I didn’t take any. Betting you didn’t, either. But they went somewhere, and a lot of people suffered because of addictions.

The lawsuits include variations of the same theme: The drug companies knew how addictive the pills were and yet continued to push them through deceptive marketing. The lawsuits also maintain that the companies found ways around the federal Controlled Substances Act which requires them to report — and stop shipment of — suspiciously large orders.

Putting profit over people, in other words.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioids were involved in more than 300,000 overdose deaths since 1999.

Studies have estimated health-care expenses linked to the opioid crisis at more than $215 billion since 2001. That would include the cost of emergency-room visits, ambulance rides and the use of naloxone, a drug that reverses overdose.

Guess who pays for a lot of that?

Settlement precedent

Forsyth County commissioners voted unanimously in February 2018 to file a lawsuit. Winston-Salem did the same, as did Davidson, Davie, Stokes, Surry, Watauga, Wilkes and Yadkin counties.

Each went its own way in hiring outside lawyers, but most in this area went with Whitaker, who is dialed in to a network of lawyers across the state and nation.

Like many lawyers, Whitaker is cautious about commenting about the lawsuits and how judgments and settlement talks elsewhere affect the locals’ cases. Judge watch (and listen) to what lawyers say outside court.

Still, it’s safe to say that he is closely following developments — specifically the ruling in Oklahoma, the settlement talks involving Purdue and the “bellwether” cases in federal court in northern Ohio where the North Carolina cases landed. Two cases were selected for trial in October as a sort of test.

“The bellwether cases provide a guide for the parties as to how they should think about resolving the case,” Whitaker said.

A huge clue came in Oklahoma, where that $572 million against a single drug company represented an estimate of what it will cost for just a single year of paying for drug treatment those with addictions and the public costs of providing services.

The bigger clue came Wednesday with word that Purdue Pharma was negotiating hard.

“While Purdue Pharma is prepared to defend itself vigorously in the opioid litigation, the company has made clear that it sees little good coming from years of wasteful litigation and appeals,” the company said in a statement to The Washington Post.

In other words, Purdue Pharma can see what’s coming. Other drug companies can, too. There’s wisdom in cutting one’s losses.

There’s precedent, too. Anybody remember the 1998 master settlement with tobacco companies? The minimum $206 billion paid over 25 years by such tobacco companies as R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard went to states as compensation for tobacco-related health-care costs.

The idea, then and now, was to provide money to states to pay for smoking cessation, to create educational programs and to offset the economic damages related to health.

Nearly 20 years on, though, critics such as the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids say that some of the money hasn’t been spent as intended.

The clock is ticking and a pile of money is accumulating to settle these opioid lawsuits. Winston-Salem, Forsyth County and a host of other local governments likely will see shares.

It will take time, of course. But the trick is going to be seeing that the money is spent wisely and goes where it needs to go.

Politicians ultimately will decide. It’ll be up to all of us to keep an eye on them.

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