Ontario County files suit against pharmaceutical companies for opioid epidemic

Simmons Hanly Conroy, one of the nation’s largest law firms focused on consumer protection and mass tort actions filed a lawsuit on behalf of Ontario County, New York, against pharmaceutical companies and drug distributers over the aggressive and fraudulent marketing and sale of prescription opioid painkillers that has led to a drug epidemic in the county and throughout the nation.

The defendants in the lawsuit include drug makers Purdue Pharma L.P.; Purdue Pharma, Inc.; The Purdue Frederick Company, Inc.; Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc.; Cephalon, Inc.; Johnson& Johnson; Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Janssen Pharmaceutica, Inc.; Endo Health Solutions Inc.; Endo Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; and Insys Therapeutics, Inc. The drug distributors named in the lawsuit are McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health, Inc., and AmerisourceBergen Corporation.

The county seeks relief in the complaint that includes compensatory and punitive damages for the millions of dollars it spends each year to combat the public health crisis created by the drug companies’ deceptive marketing campaign that misrepresents the safety and efficacy of long-term opioid use.

“The opioid epidemic currently plaguing Ontario County has taken a huge toll on residents and their families,” said Simmons Hanly Conroy Shareholder Paul J. Hanly, Jr., lead counsel for the county in this case. “Opioid addiction has caused incredible damage and loss and county leaders have been stretched thin trying to address this crisis. Together, with county officials, we will seek justice for the residents of Ontario County.”

Today’s filing follows similar action taken by Simmons on behalf of New York City and 16 other counties in New York. The lawsuits, which were filed in each county’s state supreme court, have been consolidated in Suffolk County Supreme Court and are being heard by State Supreme Court Justice Jerry Garguilo. Hanly was appointed in July 2017 as co-lead counsel overseeing the consolidated New York State opioid litigation.

“Ontario County is committed to holding drug manufacturers and distributors responsible for the misrepresentations and harms to society they have caused,” said Jack Marren, Chairman of the Ontario County Board of Supervisors. “The defendants named in the complaint ignored the impact that opioids were having on individuals and families across the county. It’s time to hold them accountable for what they’ve done to our county.”

According to the complaint, Ontario County has one of the region’s highest rates of opioid abuse. At least 34 Ontario County residents suffered opioid-related overdose deaths between 2003 and 2014. In Ontario County in 2014, there were 207 opioid-related emergency department admissions, a 191.8 percent increase since 2010, and 202 inpatient hospital admissions for the same reason. There were 348 Ontario County residents admitted to chemical dependence treatment programs in 2015 and 442 in 2016. The use of naloxone in Ontario County, a drug administered to reverse the effects of opioids, jumped from 71 incidents to 104 incidents between 2015 to 2016.

Apart from the toll on human life, the crisis has financially strained the services the county provides its residents and employees. Human services, social services, court services, law enforcement services, the office of the coroner/medical examiner and health services, including hospital, emergency and ambulatory services, have all been severely impacted by the crisis. For example, as a direct and foreseeable consequence of the defendants’ egregious conduct, the county has paid, and continues to pay, millions of dollars for health care costs stemming from prescription opioid dependency. These costs include unnecessary and excessive opioid prescriptions, substance abuse treatment services, ambulatory services, emergency department services, and inpatient hospital services, among others. The defendants’ conduct also caused the county to incur substantial economic, administrative and social costs relating to opioid addiction and abuse, including criminal justice costs, victimization costs, child protective services costs, lost productivity costs, and education and prevention program costs, among others.

The lawsuit alleges the defendants sought to create a false perception in the minds of physicians, patients, health care providers and health care payors that using opioids to treat chronic pain was safe for most patients and that the drugs’ benefits outweighed the risks. This was allegedly perpetrated through a coordinated, sophisticated and highly deceptive promotion and marketing campaign – including unbranded messaging to evade extensive regulatory framework governing branded communications. These communications, which began in the late 1990s, became more aggressive around 2006 and continue today. Specifically, the complaint details how the defendants allegedly poured significant financial resources into generating articles, continuing medical education courses and other “educational” materials, conducting sales visits to doctors, and supporting a network of professional societies and advocacy groups – all of which were successful in the intended purpose of creating a new and phony “consensus” supporting the long-term use of opioids.

Drug distributors have both the obligation and the tools to track suspiciously large surges in opioid demand, including at the level of individual pharmacies or clinics. The lawsuit alleges, however, that the defendants have failed to use these tools to warn public officials about suspicious orders, which they are legally required to do, or to reasonably exercise controls over the obvious oversupply of opioid pills.

In January 2018, Hanly was appointed co-lead counsel of the Multidistrict Opioid Litigation, to oversee all federal litigation brought against pharmaceutical companies and physicians involved in the marketing of prescription opioids. Those cases are being heard in federal court in Ohio. In addition to Ontario County, Simmons has filed similar ongoing litigation in New York State on behalf of New York City and the counties of Broome, Dutchess, Erie, Fulton, Greene, Lewis, Monroe, Orange, Oswego, Schenectady, Seneca, Suffolk, Sullivan, St. Lawrence, Ulster and Wyoming. Simmons has filed similar litigation on behalf of more than 150 other counties and municipalities in Connecticut, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Also on FingerLakes1.com