The British Columbia government announced Wednesday it is suing 40 companies in connection with manufacturing opioids.
The province is looking to recoup healthcare costs associated with the province’s ongoing opioid epidemic that has killed thousands.
“Opioid misuse and addiction has taken a terrible toll on thousands of families and individuals in British Columbia. These British Columbians deserve our determination and support to end this epidemic,” said Attorney General David Eby.
This is the first lawsuit of its kind in Canada, with a government taking direct legal action against drug companies in connection with opioid addiction and overdose deaths.
A majority of overdose deaths have included people who become addicted to prescription opioids and then either continue to use the drugs or search alternatives that have frequently been laced with fentanyl.
There were 1,422 overdose deaths in 2017, a 43 per cent increase compared to 2016, which saw 914 deaths. So far, 2017 was the deadliest year in B.C.’s history for overdose deaths.
At the heart of the lawsuit is Purdue Pharma. Victims have attempted to seek damages by filing a class action lawsuit against Purdue Canada. It led to a proposed $20-million settlement, with $2-million going to the provinces and territories and no admission of guilt. The settlement has stalled.
Purdue Pharma has lost a number of court cases in the United States. The company promoted the pain killer OxyContin as safer and less addictive than other opioids. The company has acknowledged in the United States that its marketing of OxyContin was misleading and paid US$634.5-million in 2007 to settle criminal and civil charges.
“I think what is very clear is that there have been few options that have been tried to date in Canada despite the ongoing crisis and I think trying this legal avenue is long overdue,” said Matthew Herder, the director of the Health Law Institute at Dalhousie University. “But whether it is successful, that is hard to say. There will be important factual questions about how much these different companies knew or ought to have known.”
Because there are so many companies involved, Herder expects the lawsuits to be dragged out and it could be years until there are any court resolutions. But Herder says one of the strong cases the B.C. government has is that drug users often are prescribed opioids that lead to their addiction.
“Many folks who become unfortunately addicted to opioid medication or stronger things that are available on the streets started on a pathway to that outcome from prescription drugs that will be the subject of this litigation,” said Herder.