Earlier this year, when a California jury awarded $2bn to a couple who claimed Roundup weed killer caused their cancer, it seemed a high point. It was the largest US jury verdict against the company in litigation over the chemical and is, unsurprisingly, being contested.
However, a few months later, those figures look like something a district court judge, blunted by a good lunch, might suggest for the court’s poor box.
The battle between at least 24 states, the District of Columbia, and Purdue Pharma, maker of the OxyContin prescription painkiller that helped create the opioid epidemic, will set a new benchmark.
OxyContin is at the centre of America’s opioid crisis, which has, since 2000, cost 400,000 lives, a toll greater than the number of American deaths in the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined.
It is claimed that Purdue and its billionaire owners, the Sackler family, created a public health crisis by aggressively marketing opioids, while downplaying lethal risk.
“The Sacklers are billionaires; they are not bankrupt,” said the Massachusetts attorney general, Maura Healey.
They should not be allowed to use the filing to shield their assets.
Purdue filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last month, after reaching a $10bn-plus deal that would resolve the bulk of the cases, most of which were brought by states or local governments. Even if $10bn sounds impressive, it is hardly proportionate to the terrible carnage.
This week’s announcement, by Massachusetts, that it recorded the state’s first known vaping-related death, will open a new front in this perpetual David-and-Goliath confrontation.
Beleaguered businesses or individuals distancing themselves from the consequences of their behaviour or debt is not unknown in this jurisdiction, which adds another layer of concern to suggestions that we are “tip-toeing” towards an epidemic of codeine addiction.
As in America, over-the-counter painkillers are the conduit. Drug companies will try to sell us new products, so avoid using painkillers that might be addictive, except in the most necessary circumstances.