Fourteen cities, towns join lawsuit against drug companies in opioid crisis

Fourteen cities, towns join lawsuit against drug companies in opioid crisis

NORTH PROVIDENCE – Fourteen Rhode Island municipalities are filing public nuisance lawsuits against five pharmaceutical drug manufacturers and three wholesale drug distributors for their role in the ongoing opioid epidemic, Lt. Gov. Dan McKee announced at North Providence Town Hall on Monday.

Drug manufacturing companies are accused of pushing highly addictive, dangerous opioids while claiming to doctors that patients would only rarely become addicted, allegedly denying and trivializing the risks of opioids while overstating their benefits. Pharmaceutical distributors are accused of breaching their legal duties under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 to monitor, identify, investigate and report suspicious orders of prescription opioids.

McKee and municipal leaders are working with a consortium of local and national law firms to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable, with the goal of regenerating revenue that Rhode Island communities have lost fighting the opioid crisis.

The municipalities currently involved with the suit are Barrington, Bristol, Burrillville, Central Falls, Coventry, Cumberland, East Providence, Johnston, North Providence, Pawtucket, Richmond, Warwick, West Greenwich and West Warwick, with additional communities expected to join the coalition in the coming weeks.

“The opioid epidemic is creating pressure on our health care facilities and our law enforcement agencies resulting in rising costs, a strain on resources and concerns about safety,” said McKee during Monday’s news conference. “Rhode Island continues to bear the burden of the cost of the epidemic, as the cost of treatment for addiction and law enforcement continues to rise, this lawsuit gives our municipalities the opportunity for relief.”

The wholesale drug distributors listed as defendants in the suit are McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen Drug. The manufacturers listed as defendants are Perdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, and its subsidiary Cephalon, Johnson & Johnson, and its subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Endo Health Solutions, and Allergan, Activis and Watson Pharmaceuticals.

More than 1,000 Rhode Islanders have died in the opioid crisis over the last five years, with overdose deaths increasing by more than 90 percent from 2011 to 2016. Despite the steady increase in opioid-related deaths year over year, opioids remain the most prescribed class of drugs in the United States.

“We lost 336 Rhode Islanders (to opioids) in 2016. In 2011, we lost 144. The numbers have doubled,” said Dr. Michael Fine of Blackstone Valley Community Health Care. “When we were at 144, we were losing the equivalent of an entire airliner as if it had crashed. Now, it’s two.”

The opioid epidemic hits close to home for Jim Magazine, one of the attorneys involved in the lawsuit. His 18-year-old daughter was prescribed Oxycontin following surgery to remove her wisdom teeth. “Fast-forward 12 years, she’s a felon. She has gone to prison. Her daughter was born addicted to opiates. My granddaughter is now my daughter,” he said.

Another personal anecdote came from Johnston mayor Joseph Polisena, a former registered nurse, EMT and retired firefighter who responded in 1986 to his younger brother’s overdose. His brother survived, but was one of the lucky ones, said Polisena.

“We need to hold drug companies totally responsible for what they’ve done, nationwide, to our society,” he said. “They know what happens when people ingest their product. They have the data. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. This is an issue of saving our fellow human beings. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work … the nonsense has to stop.”

The lawsuit, a civil RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act case, will be filed in federal court in 10 days, according to the legal team. Each town will concurrently file an independent claim in federal court, citing individual damages related to the opioid epidemic. The pretrial phase of the suit will be heard by the U.S. District Court’s Northern District of Ohio. If prosecutors are unable to come to a resolution, the cases will go to trial in Rhode Island.