Lawsuits Seek Justice for Opioid Epidemic

There’s no shortage of blame to go around for an opioid addiction crisis that is wreaking havoc on communities across the United States.

Drug overdoses now kill more Americans than car crashes. More than 60 percent of overdose deaths involve either prescription opioids or heroin, and half of opioid deaths involve a prescription painkiller such as methadone, hydrocodone, or oxycodone.

Drug overdoses now kill more Americans than car crashes.

Prescription opioid sales have quadrupled since 1999. This legal drug trade is made possible by a nexus of manufacturers, wholesalers, doctors, and pharmacies that have put into circulation enough opioid pills to provide every American adult with a bottleful. Many of these pills end up on the black market, where they enrich criminals and create more addicts.

Communities devastated by the addiction scourge are fighting back with legal action against the people who have facilitated the epidemic.

As several recent opioid lawsuits show, there are different legal approaches to address this multi-pronged problem.

Fight Back

Huntington, West Virginia Sues Wholesalers

West Virginia is at the epicenter of the opioid overdose crisis. Over the last six years, more than 1,700 West Virginians suffered fatal opioid overdoses, as the equivalent of 433 pain pills for every man, woman, and child poured into the state.

A lawsuit filed by the City of Huntington takes aim at three drug distributors—AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation, Cardinal Health, and McKesson Corporation—whom the city blames for the pain pill deluge. The lawsuit also names a physician who allegedly wrote opioid prescriptions to city residents. (The doctor has admitted to fraudulently prescribing oxycodone pills.)

As the Huntington lawsuit notes, no single act—or actor—could sufficiently create the opioid epidemic. The current situation results from joint negligence by medical providers, pharmacies, and distributors.

“The citizens in our city, our region and our state are living in a nightmare that was avoidable,” said Huntington Mayor Steve Williams. “Profits have been pocketed while our community has been left with the fallout and stigma of the opioid epidemic.”

Washington Community Files Lawsuit Against OxyContin Maker

Across the country, some 2,500 miles from Huntington, the small city of Everett, Washington has filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma for its alleged contribution to illegal pain pill trafficking.

Purdue is no stranger to lawsuits; the drugmaker has been sued hundreds of times for its role in the opioid crisis. But this suit, prompted by a Los Angeles Times investigation, is substantively different. It claims that Purdue knew about corrupt doctors and pharmacies providing drug dealers and addicts with OxyContin, but failed to stem the drug flow or alert law enforcement.

“We know this is a bold action we are taking, but it is the right thing to do.”

Everett officials say OxyContin is a major contributor to crime and a related heroin epidemic. According to the CDC, four out of five heroin addicts were originally addicted to prescription opioids.

Everett and the surrounding area has experienced a surge in opioid addiction, overdose deaths, crime, homelessness, and government resources spent addressing the crisis.

Purdue is accused of “intentional, reckless, and/or negligent misconduct” that has caused “substantial damages to Everett,” say lawyers for the city.

Everett Mayor Ray Stephenson says, “We know this is a bold action we are taking, but it is the right thing to do.”

The New Hampshire attorney general may be considering similar legal action against Purdue, but the company has so far succeeded in blocking requests for information on criminal opioid trafficking in the state.

McKesson Corp. Pays $150M Settlement Over Suspicious Pill Sales

Wholesaler McKesson Corporation—which agreed in 2008 to set up a system for detecting and reporting suspicious orders of oxycodone and hydrocodone—will pay federal authorities $150 million for its alleged failure to follow through on that agreement.

In Colorado, for example, McKesson processed more than 1.6 million drug orders from June 2008 to May 2013, but only reported 16 as suspicious (1 out of 100,000 orders)—all from a single customer.

“Given a chance to implement a more robust system for monitoring the distribution of these products, the company instead chose to ignore its own compliance regime in favor of a bigger bottom-line,” said U.S. Attorney Paul. J. Fishman.

McKesson—the nation’s largest drug distributor—has been a frequent opioid lawsuit target. Last year West Virginia filed suit against McKesson for allegedly delivering 100 million doses of hydrocodone and oxycodone to the state over a five-year period.

Are You a Victim of the Opioid Trade?

While some companies and individuals have profited from the opioids flooding our communities, many more lives have been ruined by addiction.

If you became addicted to prescription painkillers, ClassAction.com wants to hear from you. Get in touch with us to learn your rights and receive updates about the opioid epidemic and related lawsuits.

Victims Look for Answers as Opioid Epidemic Sweeps America

A drug overdose epidemic is sweeping America, led by a dramatic surge in deaths from opioids—a powerful, highly-addictive class of drugs that includes natural and synthetic analgesics such as morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, and fentanyl, as well as heroin.

Those responsible for America’s opioid epidemic have largely escaped legal consequences, but people from the hardest-hit states are starting to fight back.

Heroin is the product of an underground drug trade pushed in back alley deals. Prescription opioids are shipped from warehouses, prescribed in doctor’s offices, and picked up at pharmacies.

One drug cartel operates on the black market, the other in white lab coats. But their products are nearly identical, both in their chemical composition and their ability to destroy lives.

Indeed, a patient who begins a painkiller regimen at a clinic very often ends up buying drugs on the street. And all too often, that same patient ends up dead.

Protected by powerful interests, those responsible for America’s opioid epidemic have largely escaped legal consequences. People from the hardest-hit states, however, are beginning to fight back.

Fight Back

Prescribing Trends Drive Overdoses

Last year the U.S. death rate increased for the first time in a decade, and overall life expectancy dropped for the first time since 1993.

Since 1999, the number of prescription opioids sold has almost quadrupled.

These sobering statistics coincide with 33,091 deaths from illegal and legal opioids in 2015—an increase of more than 200% since 2000—including more than 15,000 from overdoses involving prescription opioids.

More than six out of ten overdose deaths involve an opioid. Every day, 91 Americans die from an opioid overdose. Nearly half of all opioid deaths involve a prescription opioid.

Heroin overdose deaths, which have more than tripled in the past four years, are closely correlated with prescription opioids. The CDC reports that past prescription opioids misuse is the strongest risk factor for heroin use. Four out of five heroin addicts were initially addicted to prescription opioids.

Image source: CDC
Image source: CDC

Since 1999, the amount of prescription opioids sold has almost quadrupled. Over the same period, prescription opioid deaths have more than quadrupled.

But the amount of pain Americans report has not changed. There is also a lack of evidence to support opioids’ long-term effectiveness for managing chronic pain.

In fact, a 2016 University of Colorado study found that opioids actually increase chronic pain.

This could help explain why prescription opioid users frequently require higher medication doses to achieve the same pain relief. Higher opioid doses make it more likely that a patient will become addicted.

As the dose increases, so does the overdose risk. Overdosing on opioids can stop a person’s breathing, causing permanent brain damage or death.

Drug Companies Capitalize on Expanded Indications

Before the 1980s, prescription opioids were primarily prescribed for short-term pain and chronic pain associated with cancer and the end of life.

The medical community’s fundamental rethinking of pain in the mid-80s—from a symptom that should be tolerated to a vital sign that doctors could measure and treat—paved the way for prescription narcotics’ emergence.

Drug companies, seizing on expanded pain pill uses, began introducing new drugs and aggressively marketing them.

One company in particular, Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, exemplified the industry’s focus on chronic non-cancer pain.

OxyContin was approved in 1995. From 1996 to 2002, OxyContin sales increased from 300,000 prescriptions ($44 million) to 7.2 million prescriptions ($1.5 billion). Over this period the number of Purdue sales representatives more than doubled.

In 2001 alone, Purdue spent $200 million on OxyContin marketing. Sales representatives received six-figure bonuses.

In 2001 alone, Purdue spent $200 million on OxyContin marketing.

High-prescribing doctors were compiled in a company database and targeted. Branded promotional materials—including hats, plush toys, coffee mugs, and coupons for free OxyContin prescriptions—were distributed to practitioners.

Purdue also conducted “pain conferences” where physicians gave paid speeches and targeted doctors with medical journal advertisements.

But the marketing frenzy was based on a fundamental lie. Purdue claimed that OxyContin’s patented time-release formula posed an addiction risk of less than 1 percent. Sales reps told some doctors that the drug didn’t even cause a buzz. Meanwhile, Purdue rolled out stronger pills with even higher addiction and abuse risks.

In this way, a supposedly non-addictive, heroin-like drug was prescribed to millions of patients who in years past would have been given an over-the-counter drug.

Distributors, Doctors, and Pharmacies Get in on the Game

Drug companies like Purdue Pharma bear outsize blame for America’s opioid epidemic, but they’re not the only ones responsible for flooding communities with narcotic pain pills.

West Virginia—one of the states hit hardest by the epidemic—shows a multi-pronged conspiracy.

Over six years, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, 1,728 West Virginians suffered fatal opioid overdoses as drug wholesalers poured 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills into the state—an amount equal to 433 pain pills per resident.

Image source: CDC
Image source: CDC

Just three wholesalers supplied more than half of the pills. The companies have total revenues exceeding $400 billion. Their top executives pulled in more than $450 in compensation over the past four years as the West Virginia opioid death toll climbed.

The middlemen, however, had help from pharmacies and doctors.

For example, the Gazette-Mail reports that some small, independent drugstores and pharmacies ordered 1.1 million to 4.7 million opioid pills per year.

A report in The Guardian describes one “pill mill” pharmacy in Williamson, West Virginia that filled up to 200 opioid prescriptions per day.

Some doctors and clinics are willing pill mill accomplices.

Opioid-addicted patients, many of whom get hooked after an initial prescription for pain, “doctor shop” among numerous providers. Some doctors and clinics, however, are willing pill mill accomplices.

One Williamson clinic with a reputation for no-questions-asked prescriptions made $4.5 million per year. The doctors—including a Pennsylvania physician who sent blank, pre-signed prescriptions to the clinic—often did not even see the patients for whom they were prescribing pills.

Lawsuits Seek Accountability

In 2006, as the opioid epidemic gained attention, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) began cracking down on the drug distribution chain.

A groundbreaking West Virginia lawsuit seeks damages from doctors, pharmacies, and distributors that formed a “veritable rogue’s gallery of pill-pushing.”

Civil cases against manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies, and doctors reached 131 in 2011 but dropped to 40 in 2014, reports The Washington Post.

The reason for the decline was industry pushback. Drug companies hired former DEA and Justice Department officials to lobby against industry prosecution. Soon after, DEA officials began delaying and blocking enforcement actions.

At the state level as well, drug-makers have blocked measures aimed at curbing prescription opioid distribution. Using lobbyists and campaign contributions, drug companies have outspent anti-opioid activists by more than 200 times, according to the Associated Press.

The state of New Hampshire, which had the third highest rate of drug overdose deaths in 2014, has filed subpoenas against drug companies seeking information about how prescription painkiller are marketed in the state. The state has three attorneys on the case. The pharmaceutical companies have 19. So far, the investigation hasn’t produced a single document.

But not all legal efforts against the prescription opioid racket have fallen flat.

In 2007, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to misleading doctors and patients about the addictive potential of OxyContin and misbranding the drug as “abuse resistant.” And in 2015, after a nine-year legal battle, Purdue agreed to a $24 million settlement with the state of Kentucky for alleged Medicaid fraud involving OxyContin.

A groundbreaking West Virginia lawsuit filed by 29 plaintiffs who survived opioid addiction or lost a loved one to painkiller addiction seeks damages from doctors, pharmacies, and distributors that formed a “veritable rogue’s gallery of pill-pushing.”

West Virginia’s highest court rejected claims by the defense that admitted drug abusers should not be able to sue, citing the legal principle of comparative fault.

“What is it going to take before we as a nation accept that we are the victims for the most part and the doctor, the pharmacist and pharmacies are the perpetrators feeding off the lives of others?” said plaintiff and former opioid addict Wilbert Hatcher.

America’s opioid epidemic is an unprecedented public health crisis. Holding the responsible parties accountable may just require unprecedented litigation.