Montgomery County will join a growing list of counties, cities and states filing lawsuits against prescription opioid manufacturers and distributors over deceptive marketing practices.
County Executive Ike Leggett announced Tuesday that the county has hired the San Francisco-based law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd to serve as outside counsel for the county in the lawsuit.
“I wish I could stand here and tell you that Montgomery County is immune to this epidemic,” Leggett said. “Unfortunately, I cannot do that. Ask our first responders in our Fire & Rescue Service and in our police. Ask our front-line personnel in Health & Human Services.
“Death. Addiction. Broken families. Broken lives. We are living this reality today.”
Dr. Raymond Crowel, the chief of behavioral health and crisis services for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said 84 overdose deaths in the county were from opioids in 2016. He said the 2017 figure is expected to eclipse that number.
Crowel said holding the pharmaceutical industry accountable is a vital tool for fighting the opioid epidemic.
He noted that many painkiller users become addicted and use more and more of the drugs over time. He said children are taking the prescription painkillers from parents’ medicine cabinets and becoming addicted themselves, or sell them on the street.
County Attorney Marc Hansen said there is no upfront cost to the county to pursue the lawsuit. Robbins Geller will represent the county on a contingency fee basis, which means the law firm will pay for costs to bring the case and the county will owe nothing, even if the suit does not lead to an award of financial damages.
Hansen said the firm has experience bringing complex litigation against prescription drug companies.
Aelish Baig, an attorney with the firm, said the intent of the lawsuit is to force the drug manufacturers and distributors from using unlawful sales practices and false marketing.
Baig said the firm will focus on the companies’ failure to report suspicious sales and marketing efforts that described the opioids as not addictive.
“Defendants have made misleading statements in the public as to the safety, efficacy and dangers of these drugs,” Baig said.
She said the lawsuit will name drug manufacturers such as Purdue Pharma, Cephalon, Janssen and Cardinal Health. A complaint will be filed in either state or federal court in “a matter of weeks” that lays out the county’s case against the drug companies, she said.
Baig noted that her firm has been retained by cities and counties in Michigan and Florida to pursue opioid manufacturers for deceptive and potentially illegal corporate practices.
The move by Montgomery County follows a national wave of lawsuits by jurisdictions against opioid producers and sellers.
The Washington Post reported in July that more than 25 states, cities and counties have filed civil cases against opioid-related companies. In September, a coalition of 41 state attorneys general, including Maryland’s Brian Frosh, subpoenaed five major opioid manufacturers seeking information about how the companies marketed and sold their products.
The legal effort resembles one that reaped huge settlements from the tobacco industry in the 1990s over its attempts to downplay the dangerous health effects of smoking and project cigarettes in a favorable light in marketing efforts.