Families Who Lost Children, Savings Feel Left Out in Opioid Lawsuits

Few, if any, people who lost children, spouses and other loved ones stand to receive any compensation from the opioid lawsuit settlements.

The Columbus Dispatch

By Rita Price

There are so many ways -- too many, Tina Rossi knows -- for her to tally the devastation.

Opioids stole her family's emotional and financial stability. The drugs wrecked her own mental health and bit into bank accounts, swallowed retirement savings and made it impossible to work. There were bills for rehab and counseling as Rossi and her husband fought for their son's recovery, and payments for emergency room services and legal help when those efforts fell short.

We're in the neighborhood of $100,000," Rossi said of their out-of-pocket costs. "And that's not including my lost income, or from selling our home in a down market. And we're probably more fortunate than most."

The Galloway couple gave and gave and still it wasn't enough: On a late September day in 2017, 32-year-old Vince Rossi missed his shift at The Dispatch printing plant. When his mother went to check on him, she found him dead from an accidental overdose.

The Rossis paid for a funeral, too.

For theirs and thousands of other families throughout the nation, the massive lawsuit settlements being negotiated among drug companies and government entities can feel like one more insult, overlooking the personal tragedies spawned by the opioid epidemic and leaving it to politicians to divvy up blood money.

Few, if any, people who lost children, spouses and other loved ones stand to receive any compensation. Most of the thousands of plaintiffs who have seen their lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors move forward are public entities such as cities, counties, states and Native American tribes.

Honestly, they should have a panel of parents and families to advise them," Rossi, 58, said of the government plaintiffs. "If this money is not used appropriately, they will have exploited the blood of the victims who died."

Gretchen Addison, a Hilliard resident whose 21-year-old son, Tyler, died of an overdose five years ago, said it's hard to read news accounts of multimillion-dollar settlements that allow companies to maintain they did nothing wrong.

"Come say that to my face," Addison said. "Let me introduce you to my granddaughter who has to grow up without a father."

Addison, 52, now works to organize community forums and to connect struggling families with information and resources.

Big Pharma executives helped to create "the deadliest drug epidemic in United States history, and they still get to go home to their families at night," Addison said. "They're not wiped out financially. Some parents can't even afford to buy a suit for their child's funeral."

Painful Trade-Offs

Before the massive, consolidated lawsuit against drug companies now in front of a federal judge in Cleveland -- it includes more than 1,500 cases -- some people did seek damages on their own.

Nora Freeman Engstrom, a Stanford University law professor and expert on tort law, said her research has turned up more than 1,100 individual lawsuits filed between 2001 and 2007 that largely took aim at Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of the opioid painkiller OxyContin.

"There was a swell of litigation, but it fell flat," she said. "These suits were confounded by a number of obstacles."

Plaintiffs and their lawyers were outgunned and outmanned by Purdue's legal team, Engstrom said, and very rarely made it past pre-trial procedural maneuvering. They were stymied by defenses that focused on victims' illegal behavior and the unethical prescribing practices by physicians.

Cities, states and counties can neutralize the defenses," Engstrom said. "The states never abused drugs, they never crushed OxyContin, they never sought heroin."

Without the large-scale aggregation of lawsuits that has taken place, she and others say, it's unlikely that drug companies would be poised to pay billions for their roles in a drug crisis that saw 400,000 people die of opioid-involved overdoses in the United States from 1999 to 2017.

But there are painful trade-offs, especially when cases are settled without an airing of the evidence.

"I think the families also have an interest in there being a full public accounting and disclosure of what these companies did," said Micah Berman, a professor of public health and law at Ohio State University. "The fact that these companies keep settling is probably very frustrating."

When government entities and drug companies square off, public health and individual interests aren't always at the forefront.

There are certainly lots of limitations to using litigation in trying to address social problems like the opioid crisis," Berman said. "It's valid for these families who have been harmed to try to make their voices heard."
Everyone at the Trough

Sonya Smith attended a recent meeting of advocates for grandparents and other relatives raising children and asked what to her seemed an obvious question.

"I threw out the idea of filing a lawsuit on behalf of these children," said Smith, who lives in the Canal Winchester area. "They are the poor, innocent victims in all of this."

Smith is about to turn 57 and ought to be thinking of how close she is to retirement. Instead, she is raising four grandchildren, working an overnight job and dipping into her 401(k). She can't save money, take vacations or enjoy a full night of sleep.

"I hold out hope that she's going to get better and get her kids," Smith said of her daughter, who became addicted to opioids. "But she would have to do a real (turnaround). The parenting skills just aren't there anymore."

She loves her grandchildren fiercely and would never want them cared for in the foster system. But Smith can't see how her family isn't as deserving as the government plaintiffs and their lawyers.

Everybody's at the trough," said Ron Browder, a member of the Ohio Grandparent/Kinship Coalition board. "There needs to be some type of conversation with the settlement master about what actually gets down to the families."

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine met with about 100 lawyers and government officials from across the state last week and started talking about how best to spend the millions in settlement money that communities could soon receive. Fighting addiction will be a focus, he said.

Franklin County officials who attended the meeting at the Governor's Residence want any resulting payout to be handled by local governments rather than a budget process involving state lawmakers.

The nation's three biggest drug distributors and a major drugmaker already have settled with Cuyahoga and Summit counties for $260 million, avoiding what would have been the first federal trial. Cuyahoga officials have said they plan to expand residential treatment in the area and develop an opioid-treatment program in the county jail.

Rossi, who lost one son and has another who has successfully remained in recovery from opioid addiction, said she started keeping a mental note of all the people she knows of -- directly or through friends and relatives -- who have suffered from opioid addiction. "It's about 40," she said.

Of those, 18 have died, including a nephew. Sixteen were fatal overdoses, two were homicides.

I belong to a mom's group, and we've encountered a lot of judgment," Rossi said. "People think it's because of the parents' mistakes. And I believed that."

She knows better now. Rossi looked over at the photo of Vince that sits in her dining room, and at the collage she and her husband, Matthew, displayed at their son's funeral. She smiled as she fought back tears. "We were good parents," Rossi said. "And I've got the pictures to prove it."

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