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A More Nuanced Look at the Washington Post’s ‘Bizarre Opioid Story’

Are Trial Lawyers Behind the Timing of this News?

Barely a month after the nation’s largest trade association of personal injury lawyers conducted a “Rapid Response: Opioid Litigation Seminar,” teaching attendees how they might cash in on such litigation, the Washington Post and CBS’s 60 Minutes partnered to break Sunday’s big story that alleges the pharmaceutical industry showered members of Congress with campaign contributions in order to pass legislation, adopted unanimously in both the House and Senate and signed into law by President Obama, which effectively restrained efforts by the Drug Enforcement Administration to rein in illicit distribution of federally approved prescription painkillers.

But National Review writer Robert VerBruggen yesterday offered a more nuanced take on what he calls the Post’s and 60 Minutes’ “Bizarre Opioid Story.”  In addition to pointing out that the story cherry-picks data to suggest a steeper drop-off of DEA “immediate suspension orders” for shipments of opioids after drug lobbyists began reaching out to Congress and the executive branch,  he notes that “the Post’s heroes are hardly free of their own conflicts; the most prominent, former DEA Office of Diversion Control head Joseph T. Randannazzi, is now ‘a consultant for a team of lawyers suing the opioid industry.’”

Which brings us back to the personal injury lawyers’ opioids litigation seminar here in Washington last month.  As has been widely reported, some of the same profit-seeking, self-interested plaintiffs’ lawyers who helped engineer the universal tobacco settlement two decades ago, from which many of them derived astronomical contingency fees, are also behind today’s growing wave of opioid litigation filed by state and local prosecutors.  So no one should be surprised that one of the seminar’s sessions was entitled, “Opioids: The Next Tobacco?,” or that two others focused on the case to be made against opioid distributors and questions of DEA enforcement — key elements of the Post-60 Minutes story.

Of course, the hiring of outside counsel by state attorneys general and even local prosecutors may be appropriate in some instances.  But there have been many well-documented abuses of these arrangements, including those reported for more than a decade by the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board and a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times series that showed how private-sector personal injury lawyers routinely shop their ideas for potentially lucrative lawsuits against corporate defendants to friendly state AGs they support politically.

Speaking of political support, one can’t help but wonder if the plaintiffs’ bar worked feverishly to influence the timing of the Post-60 Minutes story in hopes of winning a new round of massive contingency fees in time for a redoubling of their own campaign contributions in coming election cycles.

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