Simmons Hanly Conroy, a law firm focused on consumer protection and mass tort actions, recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of Ontario County against pharmaceutical companies and drug distributors over their allegedly aggressive and fraudulent marketing and sale of prescription opioid painkillers that led to a drug epidemic in the county and throughout the U.S.
The defendants include drugmakers Purdue Pharma LP, Purdue Pharma Inc., The Purdue Frederick Co. 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. Drug distributors named in the lawsuit are McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Corp.
The county seeks relief 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’ allegedly 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 Paul Hanly Jr., lead counsel. “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.”
This filing follows similar action taken by Simmons on behalf of New York City and 16 counties in the state. The lawsuits were filed in each county’s state supreme court and consolidated in Suffolk County Supreme Court to be heard by Justice Jerry Garguilo. Hanly was appointed in July 2017 as co-lead counsel, overseeing the consolidated 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, 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 residents died from opioid-related overdoses in 2003-14. 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 residents admitted to chemical dependency treatment programs in 2015, and 442 in 2016. The use of naloxone, a drug administered to reverse the effects of opioids, in Ontario County jumped from 71 to 104 incidents from 2015 to 2016.
The crisis financially strained county services for 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, were impacted by the crisis. For example, the county pays millions of dollars for health care costs stemming from prescription opioid dependency. These costs include opioid prescriptions, substance abuse treatment services, ambulatory services, emergency department services and inpatient hospital services. The defendants’ alleged conduct 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.
The lawsuit alleges that the defendants sought to create a false perception in the minds of physicians, patients, health care providers and health care payers that using opioids to treat chronic pain was safe for most patients, and that the drugs’ benefits outweighed the risks. This reportedly was perpetrated through a coordinated, sophisticated and deceptive promotion and marketing campaign, including unbranded messaging to evade regulatory framework governing branded communications. These suspected communications, which started in the late 1990s, became more aggressive around 2006 and continue to this day. The complaint details how defendants allegedly poured 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 with the intended purpose of creating a new, fake consensus supporting the long-term use of opioids.
Drug distributors have the obligation and tools to track suspiciously large surges in opioid demand. The lawsuit alleges that the defendants 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 heard in an Ohio federal court.
In addition to Ontario County, Simmons filed similar ongoing litigation in the state on behalf of NYC and Broome, Dutchess, Erie, Fulton, Greene, Lewis, Monroe, Orange, Oswego, Schenectady, Seneca, Suffolk, Sullivan, St. Lawrence, Ulster and Wyoming counties. Simmons filed similar litigation on behalf of more than 150 counties and municipalities in Connecticut, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.