For all the talk of populism, the Trump Administration is preoccupied with easing federal oversight of big business. It’s done this through attempts to undo regulations and by weakening enforcement of the rules that remain. Sure, there are areas in which it is politically expedient to pretend to be tough on corporate misconduct. That’s what we see with drug prices or the current Boeing scandal, but for the most part companies are getting what they want.
It’s a different story in the courts. In recent days there has been a slew of major settlements and verdicts in which large corporations will be paying out substantial sums to resolve various allegations of wrongdoing.
Purdue Pharma and the Sackler Family agreed to pay $270 million to the state of Oklahoma to resolve a lawsuit relating to the company’s role in the opioid crisis that has taken the lives of more than 200,000 people in the United States. Many more such lawsuits involving other states are expected to follow.
Johnson & Johnson and Bayer agreed to pay $775 million to settle about 25,000 lawsuits involving the blood thinner Xarelto, which they jointly sell. The suits allege that the companies failed to warn patients that the drug could trigger potentially fatal massive bleeding.
A federal jury in California ordered Monsanto to pay $80 million to a man who alleged that he developed cancer as a result of using the company’s controversial weedkiller Roundup. The jury found that Monsanto was liable because it failed to include a warning label about the cancer risk. Monsanto’s parent, the German chemical company Bayer, said it will appeal the verdict. Also under appeal is another Roundup verdict from last year in which the plaintiff was awarded $289 million (lowered by the judge to $80 million).
Many more lawsuits are in the works, in some cases threatening the survival of companies. Pacific Gas & Electric had to file for bankruptcy protection in the face of tens of billions of dollars in potential liability in connection with California wildfires believed to have been caused by its aging transmission lines. A ruling by the Connecticut Supreme Court allowing wrongful marketing claims cases against gun makers may lead to billions in settlements by the industry.
Such litigation is nothing new, but the cases are taking on increasing importance in the fight against corporate misconduct at a time when federal regulation is faltering. The danger is that lawmakers and the courts themselves may curtail the ability to bring these lawsuits. There is not much they can do when the suits are brought by state attorneys general, but class actions may be more vulnerable.
This is already happening in the area of employment law. In 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed a nationwide gender discrimination suit against Walmart and made it more difficult to get such classes of plaintiffs certified. Last year, in the Epic Systems case, the high court made it easier for employers to use arbitration agreements to block lawsuits over issues such as wage theft.
If litigation goes the way of regulation and there are no effective controls on corporate behavior, we will be in big trouble.