There’s a long history of U.S. courts being called upon to fix large-scale public health crises.
Lawyers and judges, for instance, were key in settling claims related to asbestos, lead paint, Agent Orange and tobacco. More recently, they have dealt with the fallout of the U.S. opioid epidemic, which is linked to the deaths of some 500,000 Americans over the past two decades.
This litigation can serve several important goals. It can identify wrongdoers and hold them accountable. It can repair damage by compensating the victims. And it can protect the public by producing evidence regarding dangerous products and practices.
When cases are settled, however, the litigation rarely accomplishes all three goals together. Settlements deny plaintiffs their day in court and can bypass admissions of guilt or allow companies to evade public scrutiny. They frustrate and disappoint almost by design.
Frustration and disappointment have been evident in the settlement reached on Sept. 1, that ended thousands of the lawsuits filed by states, cities, counties and native tribes against Purdue Pharma. Even as Robert Drain, a federal bankruptcy judge in White Plains, New York, approved the deal he observed that it would fail to fully hold Purdue’s owners, the Sackler family, accountable for their role in the opioid crisis.
Still, the deal is about more than a single family’s fate. As a historian of drugs and the pharmaceutical industry, I see promise in it.