On October 5th, the Quebec government introduced a bill to join a class action that was started in British Columbia. The lawsuit targets 40 pharmaceutical companies that allegedly concealed the harmful effects of opioids.
Strength in numbers
This is the first time that lawyer André Lespérance has seen all the Canadian provinces make “a joint pact” to undertake a class action. He cites the case of cigarette manufacturers as an example, where various provincial governments chose to take action individually instead of jointly.
“There’s strength in numbers and it saves costs,”says Me Lespérance.“Instead of filing ten lawsuits, you file one. It also helps create a strong impact.”
Me Lespérance is a member of the Trudel Johnston & Lespérance law firm (TJL), which specializes in class actions and public interest law. Their lawyers notably won the case against the tobacco industry.
TJL is also leading a class action against pharmaceutical companies on behalf of Quebec victims suffering from Opioid Use Disorder (OUD), a situation that has “completely disrupted” the lives of the victims, explains Me Lespérance. Some of them have even become homeless as a result of their dependence on opioids.
However, the class action filed by the Canadian provinces, which Quebec wants to join, has a different goal. It aims to offset the costs of managing the opioid crisis. A total of $85 billion is claimed from the 40 pharmaceutical companies targeted by this class action.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, 541 deaths in Quebec are linked to opioid overdose in 2022 alone.
An out-of-court settlement
This intergovernmental class action linked to the opioid crisis has already produced results. In June 2022, Purdue Pharma Canada reached a $150 million out-of-court settlement with all provincial and territorial governments – a first in Canada, according to the British Columbia government.
Me André Lespérance believes that if the Quebec bill is passed, then TJL’s class action for people suffering from OUD will also be facilitated.
For the past year, TJL has been waiting for the judge’s decision as to whether its class action will move forward. According to the lawyer, this decision is expected shortly.
“Of the 35 manufacturers, we’ve settled with ten or so of them, the small players,” he says. “The big players [are contesting the lawsuit]. We’re waiting for the judge’s decision.”
As for the tobacco companies, although TJL won its case, the dispute is far from settled, as the three Canadian manufacturers – Imperial Tobacco, JTI-MacDonald and Rothmans Benson & Hedges – filed for bankruptcy in 2019.
A bill which might pass soon
In 2018, British Columbia passed the Opioid Damages and Health Care Costs Recovery Act. This act allows the province to file a class action on behalf of the federal and provincial governments.
Although the Quebec bill has only just been introduced, the Quebec government explains that it has been involved in this matter on four separate occasions since 2018:
- It participated in the pan-Canadian working group created to facilitate information sharing between governments on legal proceedings,
- It mandated British Columbia attorneys to represent it and file a claim on its behalf in Purdue Pharma and US-based Endo’s bankruptcy proceedings,
- It took part in settlement negotiations with defendant companies, which notably led to a settlement with Purdue Pharma for a total of $150 million,
- It took part in discussions on how best to distribute the out-of-court settlements between the different governments.
The Office of the Minister responsible for Social Services hopes that the bill will pass by December. Only then will the Quebec government be able to officially join the class action in British Columbia.