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Thousands of entities file suit against drugmakers

Suing Big Pharma

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Many blame the drug industry for creating the opioid crisis. - IRYNA IMAGO / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Iryna Imago / Shutterstock.com
  • Many blame the drug industry for creating the opioid crisis.

Litigation abounds against opioid drugmakers and marketers, as more than 1,600 cities, counties, states, Native American tribes, labor unions and other entities seek payback for what they call fraudulent and deceptive marketing that promoted deadly painkillers for decades, giving companies a windfall and claiming thousands of lives.

Nearly 400,000 people died from opioid overdoses in the United States from 1999 to 2017, a period in which the yearly number of deaths increased sixfold from 8,048 in 1999 to 47,600 in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Government agencies began filing lawsuits in 2017, and the proliferation of cases led to consolidation in federal court in the Northern District of Ohio, where thousands of documents reflect claims from litigants ranging from Huerfano County, Colorado, to the Yurok Tribe in California.

Hundreds of lawsuits also are popping up in state courts as well, including in Colorado.

Absent from those cases: El Paso County, where county commissioners elected to not pursue damages for lives ruined or stolen by addictive painkillers.

The multitude of lawsuits has been likened to legislation against tobacco companies, which settled in 1998 with a payout to states of $206 billion over 25 years.

Already, as The Colorado Sun reports, Purdue Pharma agreed in March to pay the state of Oklahoma $270 million to settle its lawsuit over Purdue’s alleged role in fueling the opioid crisis. Then in late May, Oklahoma settled with Teva Pharmaceuticals for $85 million, according to news reports.

That case is among those filed by at least 36 states, including Colorado, naming Purdue and others.

On Sept. 6, 2018, then-Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, filed suit in Denver District Court against Purdue. In a news release at the time, Coffman said she was joining authorities around the country to “pursue justice against drug companies that earn billions of dollars from prescription opioids while millions of people suffer and die.” She also said her office was committed “to fight the scourge of opioid addiction” and hold drug companies accountable.

Current Attorney General Phil Weiser, elected in November, will up that ante. In an emailed statement, his spokesperson Lawrence Pacheco says Weiser, too, wants to hold Purdue and other opioid makers accountable and “will be filing an amended complaint in the near future that adds individual defendants and others for the role they played in deceiving Coloradans and ruining many lives and communities.”

Besides Colorado’s lawsuit and others filed in state courts, hundreds more seek compensation in a multi-district federal lawsuit overseen by U.S. District Court Judge Dan Polster in Cleveland. Colorado plaintiffs involved in that case include Huerfano, Pueblo, Jefferson, Conejos and Adams counties, and the cities of Lakewood, Thornton and, as of May 3, Brighton.

Pueblo County’s 280-page suit, filed June 14, 2018, calls the opioid crisis “the worst man-made epidemic in modern medical history,” and asserts two types of claims: those against manufacturers for their “massive false marketing campaign” that caused demand to explode, and supply-chain entities that “reaped enormous financial rewards by refusing to monitor and restrict the improper distribution of those drugs.” These include Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid and Walmart.

The lawsuit, filed by an Illinois law firm, accuses defendants of racketeering, violations of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act, public nuisance, negligence, unjust enrichment, fraud and civil conspiracy.

Pueblo County commissioners couldn’t be reached for comment.

El Paso County is sitting this one out. Asked about that, County Attorney Diana May referred the Independent to the county’s communications director Ryan Parsell, who says the county’s May 30, 2018, statement “still stands.”

In it, the county asserts that hoped-for changes in behaviors in the drug industry “will be accomplished with or without El Paso County’s participation” in the lawsuit.

While acknowledging “these addictive medications” can lead to destructive behaviors that burden families, public safety agencies, medical response personnel, the criminal justice system and the social safety net, county officials believe that lawsuits will “add to the costs of almost everything for everybody” and that determining direct impacts from opioid abuse “would be imprecise at best and speculative at worst.”

But County Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly, for one, gave the County Attorney’s Office an estimate in April 2018 that he’d spent $219,810 in 2017 for autopsies conducted on 102 people whose deaths were related to opioids. Last year, he performed autopsies on another 78 people killed by opioids.

So far, there’s been no local accounting for how much the opioid crisis has cost taxpayers, such as in programs supporting families through the Department of Human Services or costs associated with incarceration and rehabilitation.

Stephen Ochs, a former medical doctor who is now an attorney representing clients in four states, including Colorado, in the national lawsuit, has estimated more than 5,500 county residents are addicted to opioids. He’s also said a payout could help fund recovery facilities and programs, law enforcement and child services.

The first trial stemming from the opioid crisis opened in Norman, Oklahoma, on May 28 and is expected to span the summer. In his opening argument, according to Politico.com, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter alleged Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals — the only remaining defendant after Purdue and Teva settled — caused “ruinous destruction” by flooding the state with highly addictive painkillers.

The first of the trials in the federal case in Ohio is slated for September, according to a transcript of a Jan. 10 hearing.

It’s unclear if the defendants might be testing the waters to settle, but Judge Polster barred attorneys during that hearing from publicly “discussing, even in general terms, settlement discussions.”

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