Alberta government joins B.C. lawsuit to recover costs related to opioid crisis

The Government of Alberta is going to sign on to a class action lawsuit filed by the British Columbia government to recoup the costs of fighting the opioid crisis from opioid manufacturers and distributors.

The B.C. government's proposed class-action lawsuit was filed a year ago against dozens of pharmaceutical companies.

The suit alleges the companies falsely marketed opioids as less addictive than other pain drugs and helped trigger an overdose crisis that has killed thousands since OxyContin was introduced to the Canadian market in 1996.

It names the maker of OxyContin — Purdue Pharma Inc. — as well as other major drug manufacturers, and also targets pharmacies, alleging they should have known the quantities of opioids they were distributing exceeded any legitimate market.

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On Monday, Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer said joining the existing legal claim is the most efficient way for Alberta to recover the costs associated with the crisis.

"Alberta will support the proposed national class action to hold manufacturers and distributors of opioids accountable for their role in the ongoing addiction crisis in Alberta and across Canada," he said.

Earlier this year, the Ontario government said it plans to join B.C.'s proposed lawsuit. The governments of Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick are also taking part.

The action is brought on behalf of all federal, provincial and territorial governments and agencies that have paid health-care, pharmaceutical and treatment costs related to opioids from 1996 to the present, the Alberta government said in a release.

In 2018, there were nearly 800 fatal opioid-related overdoses and 4,200 calls to emergency services in Alberta.

"We're suing the companies for two reasons," said Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro.

"First, one of the main reasons doctors over-prescribed is that the companies told them that the opioids were safe. The companies aggressively promoted the claim that opioids posed a low risk of addiction. And that was misleading.

"And second, we're suing the companies because they over-supplied the drugs recklessly. They ignored evidence that the drugs were being over-prescribed and diverted — that is, being taken by people other than the patient they were prescribed for."

The Alberta government is in the process of drafting legislation similar to B.C.'s Opioid Damages and Health Care Costs Recovery Act, which allows that province to recover health-care costs on an aggregate, rather than an individual, basis using population-based evidence.

"We must not just watch out for individual crimes but also large entities who pose a threat to our health, safety and peddle in misery and human despair," Schweitzer said.

"I think that we have a strong, legal case here. To recover damages through litigation ... is the most efficient and cost-effective proceeding giving us a stronger bargaining position and creating stronger pressure for the defendants to consider settlement."

Lorian Hardcastle, an assistant professor of law at the University of Calgary with a cross appoint to Cumming School of Medicine, says the joint approach has the advantage of allowing provinces to share resources, strategies and documentation.

"I think in terms of the litigation resources, you start to achieve economies of scale when you have multiple people ready to help fund this litigation," she said.

Hardcastle says she believes the lawsuit has a decent chance of succeeding, but she cautions it could take many years to wind its way through the courts.

An Oklahoma court ruling in August found Johnson & Johnson helped fuel the state's opioid crisis and ordered the company to pay US$572 million.

Purdue Pharma, the maker of the OxyContin, filed for bankruptcy in the United States and proposed a multibillion-dollar plan to settle with thousands of state and local governments.

Schweitzer said the Oklahoma ruling is encouraging and provides a basis for similar claims in Canada.

"Obviously, Canada and the United States have very different legal systems. But again we think this is an important step to stand up for all the lives lost in Alberta."