Luzerne County filed a lawsuit Wednesday in federal court against a string of opioid manufacturers and wholesale distributors.
The civil suit — proposed by county Manager C. David Pedri and approved by county council — was initiated to eliminate the public health and safety hazard caused by the opioid epidemic; to abate the resulting problems; and to recoup funds spent because of the defendants’ “false, deceptive and unfair marketing and/or unlawful diversion of prescription opioids,” according to the 208-page filing in the U.S. District Court in Scranton.
It accuses the defendants of racketeering and alleges they foresaw the economic damages and sustained them through intentional and/or unlawful actions and omissions.
Motivated by corporate profit, the manufacturers pushed opioids, falsely representing to doctors that patients would only rarely succumb to drug addiction, it maintains.
“These pharmaceutical companies aggressively advertised to and persuaded doctors to prescribe highly addictive, dangerous opioids,” turning patients into drug addicts, it said.
The wholesale distributors intentionally breached their legal duties under federal and state law to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders of prescription opiates, the suit states.
The filing is packed with statistics on opioid addiction and overdose deaths in the country, state and county.
“The opioid epidemic is particularly devastating in Luzerne County,” it said, citing drug overdose deaths that have increased “alarmingly” in recent years.
Fatal drug overdoses rose from 67 in 2013 and 2014 to 95 in 2015 and 140 in 2016, it noted.
“Luzerne County has a population of 313,000, and the county’s 140 deaths in 2016 yielded an overdose death rate four times that of New York City,” it said. “The county has experienced so many drug overdose deaths, in fact, that the county coroner had trouble finding room for the bodies.”
A council majority approved the administration’s recommendation to file the action in September.
The county retained Baron & Budd PC, of Dallas, Texas, and other associated firms to handle the litigation. Fellerman & Ciarimboli Law PC, Kingston, was hired to serve as the local liaison.
All lawyers are working on a contingency basis and will receive 30 percent of any gross total recovery and nothing if the litigation is unsuccessful, officials said.
Delaware and neighboring Lackawanna County have filed similar suits, and numerous other counties are considering the option.
Pedri has said manufacturers and wholesalers have “flooded the market” with opioids, pointing to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistic indicating 85 of every 100 county residents had opioid prescriptions in 2016.
Seeks unspecified damages
The suit does not expressly state a total amount the county is seeking because the tally of the financial impact is “ongoing and fluid,” county Chief Solicitor Romilda Crocamo said Wednesday.
For example, Pedri and his staff had estimated two county departments — correctional services and Children and Youth — incurred more than $12 million in costs combined due to opioid addiction this year alone. Crocamo said expenses continue to grow.
This week, county Coroner William Lisman projected the county will end 2017 with 139 overdose deaths. His proposed 2018 budget is based on the expectation overdose deaths will remain at high levels and includes $60,000 for toxicology tests and also funding for autopsies in drug cases that will cost taxpayers $2,200 each.
The suit requests a jury trial. Pedri has warned the action likely would take years to adjudicate.
It names the following defendants:
• Purdue Pharma L.P., Purdue Pharma Inc. and The Purdue Federick Co. Inc.
• Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. and Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc.
• Cephalon Inc.
• Johnson & Johnson
• Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc. and other related entities
• Noramco Inc.
• Endo Health Solutions Inc. and Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc.
• Allergan PLC
• Watson Pharmaceuticals Inc.
• Watson Laboratories Inc.
• Actavis LLC and related entities
• Mallinckrodt PLC and Mallinckrodt LLC
• Amerisourcebergen Drug Corp.
• Cardinal Health Inc.
• McKesson Corp.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.