Mass. cities and towns join opioid lawsuits

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More than 30 Massachusetts cities and towns have committed to joining a nationwide movement of suing pharmaceutical companies and distributors for municipal costs resulting from the opioid abuse epidemic.​
Chicago was the first city in the U.S. to file such a lawsuit, in 2014. Last December, Greenfield became the first Massachusetts community to file a suit in U.S. District Court.
In the lawsuits, municipalities enumerate a number of costs associated with the opioid epidemic, including EMS services, corrections, emergency response, workers’ compensation, Medicare and Medicaid payments, child protective services, and law enforcement costs, such as police officers having to carry and administer naloxone to resuscitate overdose victims.
Erich Eiselt, assistant general counsel for the International Municipal Lawyers Association and coordinator of the organization’s Opioid Working Group, said the federal cases allege fraud and misrepresentation by pharmaceutical companies that marketed opioids as a treatment for long-term pain. The suits allege that distributors did not track and inform the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration of suspicious opioid orders as required under the Controlled Substances Act.​
Most of the opioid cases focus on five major pharmaceutical companies: Purdue Pharma, Endo Health Solutions, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and subsidiary Cephalon, Johnson & Johnson and subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals, and Allergan. The three major drug distributors named in the most cases are AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., and McKesson Corp.
Law firms are contacting Massachusetts cities and towns offering to represent them at no cost, with the firms aiming to collect a portion of any settlement that might be won. Any settlement would have to be accepted by the municipality, or the case could go to trial.
On Feb. 5, Boston issued a formal Request for Information as it prepares for potential litigation.
“The pharmaceutical industry is the main offender and sustainer of the opioid crisis,” Boston Mayor Martin Walsh said in a statement. “We, like so many towns and cities across the country, have invested time, money and resources. Now is the time to finally hold the pharmaceutical industry responsible.”
Eiselt said cities and towns will have to undertake the research to identify the financial costs incurred from the opioid epidemic before deciding whether it makes sense to file or join a lawsuit.
Jim Lampke, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Lawyers Association, said the MMLA has shared information with members and encourages any city or town considering a lawsuit to consult with their regular municipal counsel as a first step.
On Dec. 5, 2017, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation in Washington, D.C., approved a request to combine the cases filed in federal court into “multidistrict litigation,” where cases with similar claims are assigned to a single federal court to expedite proceedings.
The Judicial Panel assigned the cases filed in federal court to the Northern District of Ohio. As of mid-February, approximately 370 lawsuits have been rolled into the multidistrict litigation, and further cases filed in federal court will be rolled in as well.
On Jan. 4, the federal court judge appointed attorney Joseph Rice of the firm Motley Rice as co-lead counsel in the multidistrict litigation. Rice was the lead negotiator in the $250 billion Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, finalized in 1998, that resulted from states suing tobacco companies.
Eiselt noted that some states, such as California and Oklahoma, are pursuing cases in state court instead of at the federal level. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has partnered with 40 other states’ attorneys general on an investigation into opioid manufacturers and distributors but has not filed a lawsuit.