An Ontario judge says he needs more time to consider an agreement by Purdue Pharma to pay $20-million to settle a long-standing class-action lawsuit after an outpouring of testimony in his courtroom on people's lives destroyed by addiction to prescription painkillers.
Justice Edward Belobaba of Ontario's Superior Court of Justice said that before Tuesday's hearing, he had been inclined to approve the settlement.
However, after listening to "the very compelling stories" of half a dozen individuals, including two mothers whose sons died of overdoses, he said he needs more time to consider whether the settlement is reasonable.
The proposed national settlement would cap a legal battle that began a decade ago between Purdue, the maker of the prescription painkiller OxyContin, and lawyers representing as many as 1,500 Canadians who got hooked on the drug after their doctors prescribed it.
The settlement, which is not an admission of liability by Purdue, must be approved by the courts in Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia before it becomes final.
Tuesday's hearing, the first of four, was widely expected to result in an endorsement by the court, given that both Purdue and the class-action lawyers had agreed to it. If Justice Belobaba does not approve the settlement, the decision can be appealed.
Halifax lawyer Ray Wagner told The Globe and Mail he has no concerns with the judge taking his time "to do justice."
Mr. Wagner's law firm launched the class action in 2007 in Atlantic Canada and later joined forces with firms in Ontario and Saskatchewan representing people in the rest of the country.
"With the serious and emotional testimony today," Mr. Wagner said, "we were not surprised that he would take time to consider the evidence and the submissions."
Patricia Ann DiPetta of Welland, Ont., struggled to compose herself as she described the trail of bereavement after the death of her son in 2007. She read a prepared statement addressed in part to her son, Nicholas Anthony DiPetta Jr.
"Now I cry tears of sadness for what could have, should have, but will no longer be," Ms. DiPetta said. "Every day, I see things that remind me of you. I see you in my dreams. I hear your voice on cloudy days."
Jody Ekman, 45, told the court he was addicted to OxyContin for 12 years after his doctor prescribed the drug in 2001 for a minor injury. He lost his job, he said, and his father died before seeing him finally beat his addiction.
"This drug took me to the deepest abyss of hell," he told the court. "All those years are just gone."
Justice Belobaba asked Mr. Ekman what he would like the courts to do. Purdue could "take a little responsibility," Mr. Ekman said. His mother, Karen Ekman, also at court, said the amount of money Purdue has offered is "an absolute disgrace."
Valerie Rhodes held up a photograph of her son, who died of an overdose in 2009, after he was prescribed OxyContin for back pain. He was 25. Whatever amount she receives from the settlement means nothing to her, she told the court.
"I reject the settlement because it doesn't hold [Purdue] accountable," Ms. Rhodes said. "I would like to see a trial."
The class-action accuses Purdue of knowing that anyone who took OxyContin would be at risk of becoming addicted to it and suffer withdrawal symptoms if they stopped. But at no time were these risks disclosed.
Lawyers for Purdue did not address the court on Tuesday.
Canada's opioid epidemic traces its roots to the introduction of OxyContin 21 years ago. Until the mid-1990s, opioids were used primarily for terminal cancer patients. In 1996, Health Canada approved OxyContin to relieve pain that was moderate to severe.
Purdue sales reps persuaded doctors to expand their use of opioids beyond treating cancer pain by pushing the notion that OxyContin posed a lower threat of abuse and dependence than other opioids.
The drug was the top-selling long-acting opioid in Canada for more than a decade, generating $31-billion (U.S) in revenue for Stamford, Conn.-based Purdue. OxyContin also became a lightning rod in the early 2000s, as reports of opioid dependence and overdoses exploded. Purdue pulled OxyContin from the market in 2012, shortly before the patent was to expire.
Other, stronger drugs filled the void, including illicit fentanyl, which began appearing on the streets in Canada in 2012, leading to a sharp spike in opioid-related deaths.
Justice Belobaba acknowledged that many people feel the settlement is inadequate. But he said the class-action lawyers believe the case would be difficult to win if it went to trial.
"The fact of the matter is, I don't want this to be a gang-up on Purdue," the judge said.
He expects to make a decision by early next week.
Joel Rochon, a Toronto class-action lawyer, told the court the settlement was the best that lawyers could do. "We've got a bird in hand right now," he said.