Conference explores litigation tools and policy solutions for opioid epidemic

NYU Law’s September 26 Conference on the Opioid Epidemic offered sobering statistics on opioid use. More than 900 deaths from opioid-related overdoses occur in the United States every week. With approximately 1.7 million Americans dealing with opioid addictions, this epidemic has created a public health crisis, dampened economic growth, and posed a threat to national security. The conference, hosted by NYU Law’s Classical Liberal Institute, the Center on Civil Justice, and the NYU Journal of Law & Business, convened experts in litigation, health law, and drug policy and regulation for discussion and debate on how to address the opioid crisis in the courtrooms and Congress.

David Birnick, Shiela Birnbaum, Joseph Rice, Jonathan Novak and Arthur Miller
David Bernick, Sheila Birnbaum ’65, Joseph Rice, Jonathan Novak, and Arthur Miller

In the keynote address, Diane Wood, chief judge of the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, offered some reflections on class actions and aggregate litigation. A panel moderated by University Professor Arthur R. Miller addressed the use of litigation tools such as multidistrict litigation and class action settlements in opioid cases. The panelists included David Bernick, a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, and Sheila Birnbaum ‘65, a partner at Dechert, who have each represented pharmaceutical companies or other defendants in opioid litigation; also on the panel were plaintiff-side lawyers Jonathan Novak, an attorney at Fears Nachawati and Joseph Rice, co-founder of Motley Rice. A second panel, moderated by Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law Richard Epstein, evaluated current drug regulation and options for drug policy reform.

Selected Remarks:

Sheila Birnbaum: “Let me just say, from my client’s position, we are not, and have not, and will not, enter into an agreement of settlement where the money goes into general treasuries of cities or states. If you’ll follow our settlement in Oklahoma, we insisted and the AG agreed, that the money went into a foundation—State University of Oklahoma—to be used in a foundation for treatment, and for research, and for education, and the bulk of the money went for that purpose.”

Jonathan Novak: “In 2017, over 72,000 Americans died of overdoses. That’s a significant number of human beings, Americans, dying from overdoses.…The crisis is that we normalized something so dangerous and it’s killing us, and it’s hobbling our workforce, and it’s taking money that’s in our communities, and it’s going towards Narcan and emergency responders instead of that money going towards bridges and schools and things like that. It’s a crisis on all levels of the society.”

Chief Judge Diane Wood: “I have seen more than a few class action settlements that are very suspect, and there are some people who make it their business in life to attack class action settlements for being too one-sided toward the lawyer and delivering insufficient or insufficiently effective relief to the class members. This is real. This happens, and our court has disapproved some number of those settlements, and sent it back to the district court to say, ‘You gotta tell the parties to try again.’”

Follow the full discussion on video:

Keynote Address: Aggregate Litigation

Panel 1: Opioid Litigation

Panel 2: Opioid Regulation

Posted October 15, 2019