Looking for Liability for Opioid Deaths

Doctors, pharmaceutical companies—who can you sue?

By Judy Malmon, J.D. | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on April 6, 2023

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The United States is facing a major crisis in the epidemic of opioid addiction.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 1999-2020 more than 564,000 people have died from an opioid overdose, while countless others struggle through daily suffering associated with addiction and substance abuse. More Americans have now died from opioid-related overdose than in the Vietnam War, and in 2016 and 2017, it took more lives than breast cancer.

Frequent overdosing on prescription opioids has led some large employers, municipalities, and nonprofits in multiple jurisdictions to provide training to first responders and health care professionals on opioid overdose prevention and the use of Narcan and Naloxone, anti-overdose drugs.

Opioid abuse is a public health crisis.

Doctor Liability

One direction to point a finger for this crisis is at the medical doctors who prescribe opiate-based pain medications. Can doctors be held accountable for prescribing—and refilling—hydrocodone, oxycodone, oxycontin, fentanyl or other synthetic opioid prescriptions?

That depends. More and more, doctors are facing liability for overprescribing addictive opioid drugs, and a few have even faced murder charges.

Medical malpractice and wrongful death claims have been on the rise against physicians for negligently prescribing addictive substances resulting in overdoses and deaths. And the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has pursued action against health care providers in increasing numbers.

Holding Big Pharma Accountable

In the 1990s, pharmaceutical companies began touting the class of opioid painkillers as non-addictive “wonder drugs” for treating pain. Studies have now shown these claims to be false and lead to prescription drug abuse.

Can the pharmaceutical companies and distributors be held liable for misrepresenting their products?

Philadelphia recently sued five major pharmaceutical producers, claiming they are at least partially responsible for generating mass addiction and the many millions of dollars it costs to health care and law enforcement to treat it.

A number of municipalities in Ohio, Michigan, and Tennessee, as well as the states of Ohio, New Hampshire, Missouri, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and South Carolina have likewise filed suits pursuing big pharma to share in the costs associated with the opioid epidemic and drug overdose deaths.

Attorneys general in the majority of U.S. states are in discussions to develop a strategy for a unified mass tort effort. In all, more than 200 separate lawsuits have been initiated against opioid-producing drug companies, which may well result in a global settlement similar to that from tobacco lawsuits in the 1990s.

If you or a loved one have been affected by the opioid crisis, there may be some legal recourse available to you. Talk to an experienced medical malpractice attorney or products liability attorney who can help assess where you or a family member’s circumstances fit into this landscape of civil liability litigation. 

If you’d like more general information about these areas of law, see our overview on products liability law and medical malpractice law.

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