Public Health Law Watch
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Will Public Health Litigation Help to Solve the Opioid Crisis?

by Rebecca Haffajee

In this week’s issue of New England Journal of Medicine, Michelle Mello and I write about drug company liability for the opioid crisis. We analyze the history of litigation efforts against opioid manufacturers and distributors to hold these parties responsible, at least in part, for the epidemic. Early litigation brought by individuals harmed by prescription opioids against drug companies was minimally effective: most cases were dismissed early on and few settled. But these personal injury suits faced formidable company defenses -- such as that opioids were FDA-approved substances and that there were intervening causes (i.e., individuals not using the drugs as prescribed and doctors over-prescribing opioids) that contributed to the harm. However, in more recent years, mounting litigation lodged by governments may hold greater promise to succeed and reduce public health opioid-related harms, either through wins, settlements, or spillover effects. But let's be clear: litigation will not be a silver bullet to solving the crisis and shouldn't substitute for other public health-oriented policies and interventions. But lawsuits just might do some good here.  

Read more in our Perspective, entitled "Drug Companies' Liability for the Opioid Epidemic."

Elisabeth Ryan