The opioid epidemic has reached every corner of the United States and it is causing severe injuries in more ways than one. Each day, people lose their lives to opioid overdoses, car accidents with opioid-impaired drivers, workplace injuries caused by opioid users, and the effects of opioid addiction on their bodies. This national crisis negatively impacts public health as well as social and economic welfare. Unfortunately, determining liability for opioid-related injuries is often multi-faceted. Understanding the facts about the opioid epidemic, however, may help shed some light.
Opioid Misuse and Overdose Injuries
Opioid overdoses killed more than 47,000 people in 2017. Each day, over 130 opioid users lose their lives to the misuse of prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. About 2 million people will misuse opioids for the first time this year. Another 81,000 will use heroin for the first time. According to research, about 1.7 million people suffer from substance abuse disorders that are related to opioids. Between 4 and 6 percent of those who misuse prescription painkillers transition to heroin. From July 2016 to September 2017, opioid overdoses increased by about 70 percent in the Midwestern region. The misuse of opioids during pregnancy has resulted in an increase in incidences of neonatal abstinence syndrome.
Car Accidents with Opioid-Impaired Drivers
The use of prescription painkillers significantly increases a motorist’s risk of becoming involved in a car accident. According to a journal entry in JAMA Network Open, using prescription opioids while behind the wheel more than doubles a driver’s risk of causing a two-vehicle, fatal crash. Toxicology reports from more than 36,000 deadly crashes reveal that the percentage of drivers with opioids in their blood has increased substantially over the past 24 years. Over the period studied, the percentage of at-fault drivers testing positive for opioids rose from 2 to 7 percent. For drivers of the other vehicles, the percentage increased from less than 1 percent to 4.6 percent. Opioid use can cause drowsiness, dizziness, impaired concentration and attention, and increased reaction times, significantly impacting a driver’s ability to operate a motor vehicle safely.
Opioid Use at Work: A Vicious Cycle
When people are seriously injured at work, opioids are commonly prescribed to control pain. People who work in dangerous occupations are at a higher risk of developing an opioid-related substance abuse disorder, becoming a victim of on-the-job opioid overdose, or saitating their addictions with heroin or fentanyl and other synthetic drugs. In turn, the use of these drugs while working puts the safety of addicted workers and others on the jobsite in jeopardy. Impaired coordination, slow reaction times, foggy thinking, and risk-taking behaviors associated with opioid use significantly increase the chances of a workplace accident.
The Body’s Reaction to Extensive or Long Term Opioid Use
Many people begin using opioids to control pain caused by accidents, disease, or even aging. Unfortunately, they often attribute the symptoms of opioid damage to the side effects of their initial conditions. By the time they recognize the impact that opioids have had on their bodies, serious and even irreparable damage is already done. Even when some people discover the destruction caused by these drugs, opioid addiction makes it difficult to stop the damage before it’s too late.
When people use opioids extensively or for long periods of time, severe or even life-threatening damage to their brains and bodies can occur.
According to the Journal of Neuroscience Research, long term opioid use can result in brain dysfunction. These drugs modify the way the brain processes pain and stress, and even when they are discontinued, the body can lose its ability to tolerate pain on its own. For many users, the depression, anxiety, and psychological damage never goes away.
Additionally, continuous opioid therapy can adversely affect people’s respiratory, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, immune, and endocrine systems.
- People experience gastrointestinal bleeding and bowel obstructions.
- Stomach muscles can also become paralyzed.
- Hypoxemia, sleep apnea, and carbon dioxide retention have all been noted in people who use opioids.
- Respiratory depression, bradycardia, and hypotension are also side effects of opioid therapy.
- Opioid therapy has been linked to a 77% increased risk of cardiovascular events.
While some adverse health effects can be alleviated when opioids are discontinued, others may linger for years. Still others may never heal completely. And simply stopping use may not be an option. For people who have used opioids for long periods of time, withdrawal can be deadly.
Who Is to Blame for the Opioid Epidemic?
Since 2000, the opioid epidemic has claimed more than 300,000 lives. According to The New England Journal of Medicine, opioids could claim another half million lives in the next decade. For many people, a life of drug abuse and the willingness to try anything to achieve that next high may be the culprit. For others, however, pharmaceuticals companies and even personal doctors may be to blame. Most people who suffer from opioid addiction began with prescription painkillers.
In the 1990s, accurate information about the addictive properties of prescription opioid pain medication was not readily available to the general public. Pharmaceuticals companies repeatedly reassured medical providers that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid medications. As a result, physicians began prescribing these medications at an alarming rate. This led to widespread misuse of prescription painkillers, and subsequently, people turning to their illegal counterparts to kill the pain. Before people were informed about the addictiveness of opioid medications, the epidemic had already gotten out of hand. By 2016, medical providers were writing more than 214 million prescriptions for opioid pain medications annually. This is a rate of about 66.5 prescriptions per 100 people. By 2017, the US government had declared a public health emergency.
Since the early 2000s, an astronomical number of lawsuits have been filed against opioid manufacturers and distributors. These lawsuits continue to emerge and have increased in frequency in recent years. A large percentage of the lawsuits are injury claims filed on behalf of people who overdosed. Many of the suits allege that pharmaceutical companies failed to warn consumers about the potential for addiction. As the number of opioid victims continues to increase, the federal government, as well as dozens of cities, counties, states and Native American tribes have brought suits against drug makers and distributors.
Large settlements have occurred as a result of “unjust enrichment” claims. In 2007, the federal government achieved one of the largest settlements of its kind, winning a $600 million settlement in its claim against Purdue- the maker of OxyContin. In the suit, the parties admitted to misleading consumers and physicians about the addictiveness of the drug, misbranding it as “abuse-resistant.”
Liability for opioid injuries is often multi-faceted, however. In 2016, a St. Louis couple was awarded $17.6 million in damages in a lawsuit against the victim’s doctor and his physician. The victim had been prescribed 1,555 milligrams of opioid medications per day- more than fifteen-times the maximum dose recommended by the CDC. In the lawsuit, fingers pointed to the lack of oversight of prescription medications in Missouri, misrepresentation of the drugs by drug companies, and the alarming overprescription of the medications by the doctor.
Said to be the worst drug crisis in American history, the opioid epidemic has killed hundreds of thousands of people and the numbers continue to rise. Countless more victims are severely injured every day either directly or indirectly by opioid misuse. Litigation is a valuable public health strategy that may help mitigate some of the harms caused by the opioid epidemic. Its spillover effects can also assist in arresting the epidemic. With many settlements, regulations and modifications of marketing and distribution practices are imposed. Opioid lawsuits also increase public awareness about the drugs, prompting patients to ask questions and pursue other avenues for pain management. When more victims come forward and file personal injury claims against drug companies, it can also create a snowball effect that may be very effective in gaining control over the opioid epidemic.