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Opioid judgment not the end of the road

January 11, 2019

A decision this week by a Hartford judge to dismiss lawsuits filed by a number of Connecticut communities against companies they claim are responsible for the opioid crisis likely came as a surprise to many people. But it’s far from the end of the story.

On Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher ruled that the suits’ plaintiffs — which include the local governments of Bridgeport, New Haven, Newtown, Milford and others — had not proven their claims that the companies, including Stamford-based Purdue Pharma, should pay for negative effects of the opioid crisis. This comes as thousands of other government entities, from small towns to the largest states, have sued Purdue and others over the opioid crisis, suits which continue despite this ruling.

The Hartford decision said the towns hadn’t drawn a direct connection between their rising costs, including for police and emergency services, among other effects of a drug crisis, and the actions of the drug companies. He said the proper venue was for law enforcement agencies, rather than the communities themselves, to take action.

Leaders of the towns and cities said they would appeal the ruling, with Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim saying the devastation caused by the opioid crisis is “a result of the direct and irresponsible conduct of pharmaceutical companies. We remain committed to fighting for the victims who have been affected, along with their families and friends who also suffer due to the opioid epidemic.”

It’s difficult to argue with that sentiment.

Without getting into the legal weeds, the towns and cities appear to have a solid case. There is no doubt about the damage caused by opioids, legal and illegal, that have flooded into communities over the past two decades, damage measured both in lives lost and dollars spent.

Still, Moukawsher seemed to take special relish in dismissing the suits, writing that the plaintiffs wanted to “gain money solely for themselves,” but “not to vindicate the public interest as a whole.”

It’s hard to know how to respond to this. The goal of the suits is to “gain money” in large part because of how much money the opioid crisis has cost the cities and towns.

Regardless, other suits continue, including a massive, multistate litigation in Ohio that combines claims from hundreds of other jurisdictions and may result in a comprehensive settlement similar in scope to earlier suits against the tobacco industry. That could take months or years, but would at least provide some measure of compensation for all that has been lost in what has become one of the worst drug crises the country has faced.

Purdue Pharma, of course, has already been found guilty in 2007 of misleading doctors and patients about the effects of its Oxycontin pain medication. Whatever form the next round of legal judgment takes, whether from lawsuits or criminal action, the people and companies responsible for the destruction that opioids have wrought must be held to account.

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