Opioid Crisis

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Settling High: A Common Law Public Nuisance Response to the Opioid Epidemic

By Michael J. Purcell

As legislatures and administrative agencies have struggled to successfully address the ongoing opioid crisis, many state attorneys general have stepped in and filed suit against major pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors. Among the claims being made in such suits is one of “public nuisance.” Though these types of parens patriae claims have historically been a controversial means of dealing with major social issues, they also have the potential to serve an invaluable role in getting defendants to the settlement table. In order for such settlements to prove valuable, however, state attorneys general must think critically about how to structure them to ensure that they work in conjunction with ongoing legislative and administrative policies to address the full scope of the opioid epidemic.

By analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of past settlements in public health litigation, state attorneys general can structure a settlement which builds on these strengths and supports an effective response to the largely unique issues posed by the opioid crisis. Specifically, this Note argues that states should continue to pursue public nuisance causes of action against opioid manufacturers in an effort to get them to negotiate large-scale settlements that could then be used to finance immediate and ongoing legislative responses to the opioid epidemic. Part II discusses the background of the opioid crisis, explores how state and federal governments have unsuccessfully responded to it, and argues that the greatest impediment to the success of such legislative and administrative efforts has been a lack of financial resources. Part III then explores public nuisance law as it has been used in dealing with public health issues and how it might serve an invaluable role in incentivizing high settlement in the context of opioid manufacturers. Finally, Part IV draws on previous settlements to create a template for how state attorneys general in settlement negotiations with opioid manufacturers ought to structure settlements moving forward. Ultimately, the Note posits that they should turn their attention away from viewing settlements as a means to establish new substantive regulations for the industry and should instead focus their efforts on maximizing financial returns from these settlements such that they may fill the resource gap that has crippled the state’s ability to fully combat the opioid crisis.

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