Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, a powerful, highly addictive, and widely-prescribed painkiller, agreed to settle a national class-action lawsuit earlier this year. The settlement, which is the result of a ten-year legal battle waged by product liability lawyers, will pay $20-million to plaintiffs across Canada, including $2-million to provincial healthcare providers.

OxyContin, along with other high-powered painkillers, is seen as a contributing factor in the rise of opioid addiction in Canada, and the subsequent surge of overdose deaths. The Public Health Agency of Canada released data in June suggesting nearly 2,500 Canadians died from opioid-related overdoses in 2016.

Addiction and addition-related deaths take an enormous emotional, physical, and financial toll on victims and their family members. The class-action lawsuit was launched in Atlantic Canada in 2007 and eventually grew to include plaintiffs in every province, aims to secure compensation for these damages. It alleges that Purdue Pharma “overmarketed” OxyContin, and did not do enough to warn patients about the dangers of the drug, including the risk of addiction.

The CBC reported on May 1 that Purdue Pharma had agreed to pay $20-million to settle the case. While the compensation will provide much-needed financial relief to certain plaintiffs, critics of the settlement, including some product liability lawyers, believe the settlement has major shortcomings.

Issues with the settlement

The proposed settlement stipulates that the provinces will not be able to pursue further legal action to recoup costs of treating opioid-addicted residents. According to the Globe and Mail, the provinces’ public drug plans spent more than $420-million over a five-year period on medication to treat opioid addiction. The $2-million payout to the provinces contained in the larger $20-million settlement obviously does little to address this expenditure.

Certain activists and product liability lawyers have also wondered whether $18-million remaining dollars to compensate plaintiffs will adequately address the damages that have been incurred. Across Canada, individuals have lost loved ones, become unemployed, and suffered significant health setbacks as a result of opioid addiction. How many plaintiffs’ lives will be substantially improved by their slice of the payout?

Additionally, some plaintiffs are displeased by the fact that Purdue will not admit liability in the deal.

“A Canada-wide settlement has been reached in a long-standing class action based on allegations relating to OxyContin,” wrote Sarah Manley Robertson, the company’s director of communications, in an email to the CBC. “By resolving the suit, Purdue Pharma (Canada) makes no admissions of liability.”

Experts on drug safety, meanwhile, believe the settlement will do little to dissuade Purdue from engaging in harmful practices in the future.

“Payments like this are a rounding error for big drug companies,” University of Toronto drug safety researchers Dr. David Juurlink told the CBC. “They don’t really serve as a meaningful deterrent in any way.”

Juurlink would prefer to see Canadian regulators investigate the company’s practices.

“I think the fair question that might be asked is, did Purdue engage in questionable or even illegal activities in the marketing of OxyContin in Canada,” he said.

The settlement will come into effect pending the approval of four Canadian jurisdictions. So far, judges in Ontario and Nova Scotia have agreed to it, and courts in Quebec and Saskatchewan will review it this month.