Ohio Officials Hire D.C. Law Firm to Sue Opioid Manufacturers
The Akron Beacon Journal
Nov. 07—Local governments reeling from the opioid crisis have selected a law firm and plan to file their suit against pharmaceutical companies later this month.
County Executive Ilene Shapiro announced two weeks ago that she would lead Akron, Barberton and Cuyahoga Falls into court. Her office plans to file the lawsuit against a yet-to-be-disclosed list of drug companies by the end of November.
In a separate effort, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine—a year before being term-limited and now running for governor—is suing five drug companies on behalf of all Ohioans.
The two lawsuits, if successful, could result in millions of dollars in settlements redirected to fight the opioid crisis, which appears to be intensifying. In the first nine months of this year, emergency rooms have treated 2,049 patients for drug overdoses, mostly from Akron, Barberton and Cuyahoga Falls, according to Summit County Public Health.
Shapiro's office has signed a legal retainer with Motley Price, a Washington, D.C. law firm with at least 15 other clients across the nation, each a state or local government suing drug companies for an addiction problem that is draining taxpayer-funded resources.
Brian Bremmer, an attorney for the city of Akron, told City Council Monday that "this litigation will not cost the city any money," explaining that the law firm doesn't get paid unless Akron gets paid.
Across America, municipal and state governments are adding up the tax dollars burned on the opioid crisis, from education and prevention to miles traveled by ambulances to doses of naloxone that revive residents to mobile freezers that hold dead bodies until a coroner's table becomes available.
Along with DeWine in Ohio, attorney generals in Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey and West Virginia have filed suits against drug companies involved in marketing, making and distributing pain pills.
Motley Price's opioid litigation division—led by Linda Singer, a former Attorney General for the District of Columbia—is representing Alaska, Kentucky, New Hampshire and South Carolina as well as several cities, towns and counties, including Akron and Summit County.
In Chicago and Santa Clara County, Calif., her law firm filed the first opioid-related lawsuits in 2014 against the same five companies DeWine decided to sue in May. The companies are Purdue Pharma L.P., Cephalon Inc., Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., Endo Health Solutions Inc. and Actavis.
In May, Motley Price achieved a $1.6 million settlement for the Californian county. The agreement instructs Cephalon and its subsidiaries to stop "engaging in false and misleading marketing practices," according to the county government, which is still suing the other four companies.
At the top of most plaintiff's hit lists is Purdue, which admitted to misleading prescribers about the addictive nature of its opioids. In 2007, three of its executives were criminally charged and the Connecticut company paid out one of the largest fines to date for mislabeling their infamous pain pill, OxyContin.
Purdue had once pushed a questionable study that said less than 1 percent of patients prescribed certain pain pills would become addicted.
In reality, 12 percent of users became addicted. Meanwhile, the company spent $200 million in 2001 alone to market OxyContin, according to the Congressional testimony of one of its former executives.
The string of recent lawsuits often cite alarming statistics from the American Society of Addiction Medicine, which estimates nearly 80 percent of opioid addictions began with a doctor's prescription. Between 1999 and 2008, America saw a four-fold increase in opioid prescriptions and deaths from taking too many of them. In 1996, the American Pain Society pushed for pain to be a vital sign, which was adopted by a federal regulatory body in 2001, ushering in an era of pain care management by pill.
Since 2008, the crack down on the overprescribing of pain pills has turned those with addictions to heroin or synthetic opiates like fentanyl and carfentanil, which are can kill in tiny doses.
Akron At-large Councilwoman Veronica Sims—though unaware, like others on council, that the city had joined the county's legal effort—stressed the importance of having Akron listed as a plaintiff if and when a settlement is issued.
Sims referenced the distribution of more than $5 billion from a settlement reached when the state of Ohio jointly sued with other states over the tobacco industry's deceptive marketing practices and health claims. The money was distributed by the state, primarily to rebuild schools but also to fund tobacco cessation programs.
Thinking about the day drug companies might also pay up, Sims wants to have more local control over how the proceeds would be spent, "whether we're talking about drug treatment or neonatal care for babies born addicted or support for first responders."
So she successfully urged her Council colleagues to adopt a resolution Monday, "expressing support for the City of Akron to either initiate or join a lawsuit to hold drug manufacturers and distributors accountable for their role in the opioid epidemic."