Story at a glance

  • Monday was the first day of Washington state’s trial against drug companies that played a role in driving the national opioid crisis.
  • Washington state attorney general Bob Ferguson argued that drug companies were aware of the harms they were causing and displayed callous disregard for the effected communities.
  • Johnson & Johnson faces a separate lawsuit by Washington state that’s set to go to trial in 2022.

After Washington state’s attorney general rejected a half-billion-dollar settlement offer from drug companies involved in the national opioid crisis, the state’s trial against the nation’s three biggest drug companies is starting and it marks the first state to make it to trial for such a case.

On Monday,Bob Ferguson, Washington state attorney general, delivered an opening statement to the King County Superior Court, and according to The Associated Press (AP) said, “These companies knew what would happen if they failed to meet their duties. We know they were aware of the harms flowing from their conduct because in private correspondence, company executives mocked individuals suffering the painful effects of opioid dependence. ... They displayed a callous disregard for the communities and people who bear the impact of their greed.” 

Ahead of Monday’s trial, Ferguson told NPR that after speaking with families across Washington state he felt it was important to have drug companies testify under oath about what they knew and when they knew it, “so there is something more than money here at stake. And that word is, frankly, accountability. And that's what's lacking in that settlement,” said Ferguson. 

Back in 2019, Ferguson sued McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisouceBergen Corp. and argued that the $527.5 million settlement offered over 18 years was, “not sufficient to address the opioid crisis’ devastation.”

That would have equated to an average of $30 million per year for the next 18 years, which would have been spread out across all of Washington’s cities and counties.


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Washington is not the first state to attempt to take drug companies to trial. Three counties in California tried similar cases in November and lost. According to AP, Orange County Superior Court judge Peter Wilson issued a tentative ruling that the counties hadn't proven the pharmaceutical companies used deceptive marketing to increase unnecessary opioid prescriptions or created a public nuisance.

An Oklahoma Supreme Court decision also recently overturned a $465 million judgement against drug maker Johnson & Johnson, saying the opioid manufacturer didn’t create a public nuisance.  

But, Ferguson is confident that laws in Washington are different, and he’s seeking a payout of at least $38 billion to pay for addiction treatment services, criminal justice costs, public education campaigns and other programs over a 15-year period, plus billions more in additional damages. 

However, drug makers have pushed back on that, citing the state’s Intractable Pain Act, which sought to make it easier for health professionals to prescribe opioids. 

But ultimately, more than 8,000 people died in Washington state from 2006 to 2017 from the opioid crisis, and the state alleges that opioid sales rose more than 500 percent between 1997 to 2011.

Johnson & Johnson also faces a separate lawsuit from Washington state that’s scheduled to go to trial next year.


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Published on Nov 15, 2021