Attorneys representing Montgomery County filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt Tuesday against opioid manufacturers and distributors to try to stop the companies’ advertising practices and recoup money the county has spent addressing the epidemic of overdoses caused by opioid addiction.
The county’s lawsuit is the latest in a surge of legal challenges nationwide filed against pharmaceutical companies that deal with opioids. Jurisdictions are trying to force the companies to pay for the rising medical and emergency care costs of dealing with overdoses stemming from addictions that often can be traced back to the use of prescription pain killers such as OxyContin and Percocet.
“It is critical we hold responsible manufacturers and distributors whose negligent action has significantly contributed to the crisis,” County Executive Ike Leggett said Wednesday at a press conference announcing the lawsuit had been filed.
Leggett was flanked by attorneys from the California-based law firm Robbins, Geller, Rudman & Dowd hired by the county. The firm is handling the lawsuit on a contingency basis; no county funds are being spent upfront to pursue the legal action, according to officials.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan in January said the state also plans to sue opioid manufacturers, while jurisdictions such as Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties have already filed similar lawsuits.
Maryland recorded 1,856 opioid-related deaths in 2016 and 1,501 opioid-related deaths through the third quarter of 2017, according to the latest statistics from the Maryland Department of Health. Those numbers are far higher than the average of about 550 opioid-related deaths recorded in the state annually from 2007 to 2012. In Montgomery County, there were 84 reported opioid-related deaths in 2016 and 60 through the third quarter of 2017.
Mark Dearman, one of the firm’s attorneys, said Wednesday the case likely will be transferred from Maryland District Court to a federal court in Cleveland where Judge Daniel Polster is combining the cases filed against drug makers and distributors.
He said the county is challenging 14 companies, including Purdue Pharmaceuticals, Endo International, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, on allegations ranging from false advertising to failure to report suspicious sales. The suit does not specify how much money in damages the county is seeking, according to Dearman. He said the initial goal is to abate the use of prescription opioids by holding drug makers and distributors to account, but monetary damages will also be a key part of the lawsuit.
In response to the rising number of lawsuits, Perdue spokesman John Puskar told Bloomberg last year that it denies the allegations being levelled, but shares states’ “concerns about the opioid crisis.”
John Parker of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, which represents pharmaceutical distributors, sought to distance distributors from the allegations in a statement sent to Bethesda Beat in December, when the county first announced it planned to file a lawsuit against businesses making or distributing opioids.
“As distributors, we understand the tragic impact the opioid epidemic has on communities across the country,” Parker said. “We are deeply engaged in the issue and are taking our own steps to be part of the solution—but we aren’t willing to be scapegoats.”
He said distributors arrange for the “safe and secure” transport, storage and delivery of drugs, but have no role in making, marketing, prescribing or dispensing the drugs to consumers.
Dearman said he believes the pharmaceutical companies employed false advertising practices to increase the market share of their drugs by promoting them to treat long-term pain in addition to the end-stage cancer and post-surgery pain the drugs were initially designed to treat.
“These folks got together and said, ‘Well, we need to increase that market share’ and that’s what they did,” Dearman said. “In order to do that, they told a different story. They told what I believe to be is a false story, which is you can use opioids for chronic pain.”
Dearman compared the opioid-related lawsuits to the wave of lawsuits against tobacco companies in the 1990s.
“The Big Tobacco playbook was, ‘We are going to falsely advertise our products in an effort to sell more of them’,” Dearman said. “That’s exactly what was done here.”
He added he believes doctors have been complicit in the epidemic by overprescribing the painkillers. Although no doctors were named in the county’s lawsuit, he said other lawsuits that have been filed have charged doctors as well.
Several local residents spoke at the event about their children’s deaths from opioid overdoses.
Helen Najar said her daughter, Kelly O’Connor, became addicted to opioids in her early 20s after she was prescribed pain medication and Xanax. Her addiction to the powerful prescription painkiller OxyContin quickly led to a heroin addiction, Najar said.
Bethesda resident Helen Najar spoke about her daughter Kelly O’Connor’s 2016 death from an overdose at briefing about new opioid lawsuit. pic.twitter.com/cy8j4hk9sf
— Andrew Metcalf (@AJwatchMD) February 7, 2018
“Even after several rounds of rehab, this horrendous addiction led her to her death in less than three years,” Najar said. “She is one of thousands of similar stories, unfortunately. The opioid addiction starts with a pill, it’s about time we make the pharmaceutical [companies] accountable.”
Najar was joined at the event by several mothers from the group SOUL, which stands for Surviving Our Ultimate Loss, a support group for people who have lost loved ones from overdoses.
Kay Bowman, a SOUL member, said her son died in May 2015 from his opioid addiction. Luke Bowman was 34.
“He had issues with anxiety and was prescribed opioids for that,” Bowman said. “After a while he had trouble getting those and heroin was the next step. He struggled for so many years with this.”
She said the SOUL group started with about four or five members in 2015 and has since grown to include about 25 members who live in the area. She’s pleased the county is pursuing the lawsuit against the opioid-related companies.
“I think it’s about time,” Bowman said. “I hope that ultimately they will be held accountable.”
She said she wishes she had known how addictive the painkillers were when they were first prescribed to her son.
“All of us in that group, none of us really realized that,” Bowman said. “We feel so helpless.”