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WJA 2022: Sarah Burns

Sarah BurnsSimmons Hanly Conroy

“I don’t like learning in detail about the suffering of individuals and communities,” says Sarah Burns. “But if we don’t uncover their pain and hurt, then we can’t solve the problem.”

Burns began her career as a patent lawyer after earning her JD from the University of Tulsa College of Law. But her love for cases that are ever-evolving and unpredictable led her into her current practice areas of mass tort multidistrict litigation, complex business torts and prescription opioid litigation. She joined Simmons Hanly Conroy in 2008 and is a shareholder.

In 2016, Paul Hanly came to her and told her that Suffolk County, New York, had engaged their firm to investigate causes of action against opioid manufacturers. Up to that time, only a couple of complaints had been filed.

“I spent two months locked in my office with a whiteboard and laid out what made sense to me,” she says. “I came out bleary-eyed but convinced that there was a cause of action. I reformulated and rewrote the Suffolk County complaint. We filed that one, and now we have 300 cases nationwide.” Burns serves as a key member on multiple teams litigating opioid cases at the state and federal levels. Her work has secured two plaintiffs’ verdicts and more than $27 billion in cumulative settlements for counties, states and tribal nations across the country.

One of Burns’s nominators says: “When Sarah sees an injustice, she takes action to right the wrongs she sees. Her work is holding the entire opioid industry — manufacturer, distributor and retail pharmacies — accountable for their role in perpetuating the opioid epidemic in our country.”

In 2021, the settlement structure with the Big Three opioid distributors — McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health, Inc., and Amerisource Bergen Drug Corporation — and Johnson & Johnson was created, accepted and finalized. She and her team spent November, December and into January 2022 explaining the settlement to their clients and encouraging them to participate. The more parties participating, the greater the value of the settlement as a whole. To date, participation is at 97 percent.

On December 30, 2021, the first bellwether trial resulted in a plaintiff’s verdict and more than $1.7 billion in settlements for her firm’s client, Suffolk County, as well as Nassau County and New York State. This was the first case of its kind to go before a jury. The trial lasted seven months and involved 800 exhibits and 9,000 filings.

“This is trailblazing law,” Burns says. “To see the fruition of years and years of hard work taking shape on the country’s behalf is rewarding. Paul Hanly passed away in May 2021. He left a good legacy.”

Burns’s excitement for practicing law and effectuating change continues to grow. “We couldn’t bring criminal charges in these cases, so we brought civil cases,” she says. “We’ve built a framework that allows individuals, subdivisions, small companies or major companies to file litigation and bring claims that can take large companies to task. It may be unorthodox, but it is justice.”

Women's Justice Awards 2022