B.C. in court against pharma companies in bid to certify opioid class-action lawsuit

B.C. is working to make pharmaceutical companies pay, saying they had a key role in creating the toxic drug crisis. Attorney General Niki Sharma made a bid on Monday to certify a class-action lawsuit in the Supreme Court. Kier Junos has more.

By Negin Nia and The Canadian Press

The B.C. government is leading the charge to get money back from health-care and pharmaceutical companies it says were key in creating the toxic drug crisis.

Attorney General Niki Sharma says B.C. is taking the next step in certifying a class-action lawsuit that is the “first of its kind.”

“In today’s certification hearing, British Columbia seeks the right to pursue one single action, a class comprised of federal, provincial, and territorial governments in Canada, and with B.C. representing the interest of all those governments,” Sharma said outside of B.C. Supreme Court Monday.

She says that part of the work is to hold the “bad actors” who are “fueling this crisis” accountable. Those actors, she explains, include opioid manufacturers, distributors, and their consultants.

“The illegal drug supply continues to have a devastating impact on families and communities throughout the province. We are doing everything we can to save lives and keep toxic drugs away from our loved ones,” she said.

“We are fighting for people in our province, and all of Canada, because it is the right thing to do.”

Sharma would not specify an exact number the province was looking for but said it would be “substantial.”

“What we’re asking for is the health-care cost that we spent on British Columbians to address the crisis and once that money is received, of course, we need to continue to invest in all those programs and services for British Columbians and keep on working to undoing the harm that was done by the wrongful conduct of some of these companies,” she said. 

This announcement comes after the Supreme Court of Canada agreed this month to hear a constitutional challenge by four of the companies who say a law allowing B.C. to recover costs on behalf of other governments is an overreach.

The province also began the legal odyssey in August 2018 by passing the Opioid Damages and Health Care Costs Recovery Act, seeking costs from firms alleged to have contributed to opioid addiction. Throughout this work, B.C. has had one major company, Purdue Pharma, agree with the largest-ever government health settlement in Canadian history at $150 million.

The certification hearing is expected to last about four weeks and a civil trial would then have to be held to determine if the companies are liable for damages.

Helen Jennens says lost her son Tyler to a fentanyl overdose in 2016 after a years-long battle with addiction that started when he was injured in 2010 and prescribed Oxycontin — a notorious opioid painkiller that Purdue Pharma marketed as being less addictive than other medications.

Jennens was a claimant in the Purdue settlement and says this new lawsuit won’t directly help families, even if the province wins.

“If they’re going to take all that money that they might get from this lawsuit and put it into addictions and mental health and create some recovery and treatment centres, then I could say well, we’re getting somewhere,” she said.

“The lawyers will make a lot of money, the province will get a lot of money, but the people that are really, really impacted are probably not going to see much, if any.”

B.C. declared a public health emergency in 2016 over the crisis, and since then nearly 13,000 people have died of overdoses in the province.

“While no amount of money will ever bring back the people we have lost due to toxic drug poisoning, our battle against the wrongful conduct of businesses and their marketing consultants is another meaningful step to address the toxic drug crisis,” said Sharma.

-With files from Liza Yuzda

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