Pharma Companies Settle to Resolve Opioid Lawsuits

McKesson Corporation entrance

In recent weeks, the case of Purdue Pharmaceuticals (and the Sackler family that owns it) versus thousands of plaintiffs has grabbed headlines. And understandably so. That case reflects a major turning point in America’s opioid epidemic—a nationwide recognition that pharma giants played a major role in creating an opioid addiction crisis that has killed hundreds of thousands of citizens.

But the Purdue/Sackler case is not the only case of this kind. Several other pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors were involved in creating the National Public Health Emergency that is this country’s opioid addiction crisis, and now they’re being called to account. Case in point, Johnson & Johnson, AmerisourceBergen, McKesson Corporation, and Cardinal Health just settled a lawsuit that will cost them $26 billion over the next twenty years.

Unfortunately, two of the conditions of that lawsuit are that the pharma giants don’t have to admit any responsibility for the opioid epidemic, and they’ll be officially released from any future legal liability regarding the opioid crisis.

The Story

The court case took two years, but as of July 2021, the nation’s three largest drug distributors and one drug manufacturer agreed to a $26 billion settlement in exchange for immunity from future opioid-related litigations. If the agreement is finalized, thousands of state and local governments will be forced to drop their lawsuits against the companies and pledge not to bring any future action against the four corporations.

The accusations brought against the four pharma giants are clear enough. For the distributors AmerisourceBergen, McKesson, and Cardinal Health, they’re being accused of ignoring the fail-safes they had in place to monitor how much opioid drugs were being shipped out, all while pharmacies across America made orders to the distributors for millions upon millions of doses of opioid painkillers. For the manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, that company is being accused of downplaying the harmful effects of its opioid painkillers (like fentanyl patches) to doctors and patients.

The settlement is largely seen as a miscarriage of justice. The defendants never have to admit responsibility, and they’re winning lifetime immunity from all future opioid-related cases. However, one of the advantages of the settlement is that the three drug distributors will be made to implement an independent clearinghouse program to track and report drug shipments, a new fail-safe to prevent outsized orders from being sent to pharmacies.

Pile of money and law

One of the negative sides of the deal is that the $26 billion settlement relies on near-universal consensus within states for those states to receive the maximum funds allotted to them under the settlement. The defendants strategically planned this to earn as much immunity as possible. For example, if a state has 100 counties and only 50 of those counties agree to the settlement, that state will not receive anywhere near the funds currently offered in the settlement. But if all 100 counties in that state sign off on the deal, the state will receive full funds, but no county in that state will ever be able to file an opioid-related lawsuit against the corporations.

Ultimately, while billions of dollars directed towards drug education, prevention, and treatment may help address addiction in America (depending significantly on how that money is spent), many view this settlement as a cash buyout option for pharma execs, as the settlement is specifically designed to financially incentivize plaintiffs to award immunity to the pharma companies.

Opioid Addiction in America

To understand the true criminality of pharmaceutical corporations’ role in America’s opioid epidemic, one has to understand the timeline of this crisis.

Handshake medical business

In the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not be adversely affected by opioid pain relievers. Then, pharma representatives began to aggressively market their drugs to doctors, even going so far as to offer incentives and bonuses to doctors who prescribed the most opioid painkillers to patients.

In the following years, it soon became clear that opioid painkillers were addictive, that people could even overdose on them and/or die from using them. Thousands were losing their lives each year to opioid overdoses, many of whom had sought opioid painkillers for legitimate medical reasons.

In the mid-2000s, after almost ten years of mounting evidence that pharma representatives had been lying all along, doctors began reducing their prescribing rates, effectively cutting back on the numbers of opioid painkillers that were being distributed to the American public. With fewer opioid painkillers available, addicts began turning to heroin, a cheaper alternative. That’s a big part of why heroin overdose deaths surged between 2006 and 2012.

Starting aound 2013, the third wave of opioid addiction hit, the most devastating of them all. Overdoses involving synthetic opioids such as fentanyl skyrocketed. Fentanyl is a far more addictive and potent opioid than heroin or any other opioid painkiller in circulation. That surge in synthetic opioid addiction and overdose deaths is still ongoing today.

At present, about 14,000 Americans die every year from overdoses involving prescription opioids, with between 10,000 and 15,000 Americans losing their lives to opioid painkillers every year since 2006.

National Drug-Involved Overdose Deaths – graph
Image Source:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly 841,000 Americans died from drug overdoses between 1999 and 2019, a strong majority (about 70%) of those deaths being opioid deaths. Furthermore, the death rate is continuing to climb each year. From 2018 to 2019, the overdose rate went up 4%. But from 2019 to 2020, it went up almost 30%, the most significant spike since the crisis began.

Opioid addiction has been the driving force behind America’s drug crisis since the turn of the century. And as the data shows, it all began with prescription opioid pain relievers. Given that pharma companies made these drugs and pushed them on the American public, all while knowing the drugs were addictive, they should be held accountable for the devastation their products caused.

The Need to Hold Pharmaceutical Corporations Accountable

This settlement is nothing more than a slap on the wrist to the four mega-corporations. The companies have a combined net worth of at least $489 billion, possibly more than one-half trillion dollars. And they have 20 years to pay the full sum of the settlement. Rather than funding needed treatment and prevention services now, the pharma giants can slowly pay the $26 billion over the next two decades, using their profits from other drugs and their considerable stock dividends to pay the restitution.

Quoting one state attorney general. Bob Ferguson of Washington, “The settlement is, to be blunt, not nearly good enough for Washington.” He went on to say, “It stretches woefully insufficient funds into small payments over nearly 20 years, to be shared among more than 300 Washington jurisdictions.” And that’s just one attorney general from one state who’s seen that, while $26 billion sounds like a lot of money, when it’s spread out of 20 years and divvied up across thousands of plaintiffs across hundreds of counties in dozens of states, it’s not nearly enough to make up for 20 years of devastating, widespread opioid addiction.

“The Sacklers are not bankrupt, and they should not be allowed to manipulate bankruptcy laws to evade justice and protect their blood money. This decision is a slap in the face to the millions of suffering and grieving Americans who have lost their lives and loved ones due to the Sacklers calculated and craven pursuit of opioid profits.”

Another Attorney General, William Tong of Connecticut, had a similar sentiment. Reflecting on the recent settlement with Purdue Pharmaceuticals and the Sacklers, he voiced his dissent to that settlement, saying that pharma giants are essentially able to get away with murder simply by tossing a few dollars to the states and counties most ravaged by addictive prescription drugs. In Tong’s words, “The Sacklers are not bankrupt, and they should not be allowed to manipulate bankruptcy laws to evade justice and protect their blood money. This decision is a slap in the face to the millions of suffering and grieving Americans who have lost their lives and loved ones due to the Sacklers [sic] calculated and craven pursuit of opioid profits.” Clearly, the pharma lawsuits are not holding drug execs sufficiently accountable for one of America’s worst public health emergencies.

Opioid Addiction Treatment; Solving America’s Drug Crisis for Good

Doctor talks with patient

There is no question that pharmaceutical giants have committed horrible crimes by creating addictive drugs that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Sadly, it seems that our justice system is such that if a defendant has enough wealth, they can almost always get away with even the most devastating of crimes.

For CEOs and executives of corporations like Purdue Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson, AmerisourceBergen, McKesson Corporation, and Cardinal Health, they will have to pay some fines, yes. But they will never be held criminally culpable, publicly accountable, or even made to apologize for the millions of American families forever harmed by prescription opioids marketed to them as a “cure” but ultimately not a cure but the inception point of a life-destroying addiction.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli; ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP, LCDC



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.