Lawsuits mount against opioid makers
Opioid drugs

File photo

Lawsuits mount against opioid makers

Story By: LINDA LEUZZI
4/13/2017


Suffolk County has hired Simmons Hanly Conroy LLC, which filed a New York State Supreme Court lawsuit against several pharmaceutical companies and their subsidiaries who manufacture prescription opioids. In essence, the county joined a growing number of state and county-wide municipalities in lawsuits alleging that drug companies utilized deceptive practices in their promotion of opioid use, as well as in its advertising of the drug’s effectiveness and safety in pain management. 

Lead attorney and co-founder Paul J. Hanly Jr. of Simmons Hanley Conroy LLC, which specializes in litigation against pharmaceutical manufacturers, has taken the case. 

“There are three in New York [State] represented by our firm, Suffolk, Erie and Broome counties,” Hanley said of opioid lawsuits he was aware of. “There are the two filed in California and one in Chicago, two in West Virginia and the city of Everett, Wash. But there are a number more in the works. Our law firm has been notified by an additional 10 counties in New York including Schenectady.”

The Manhattan-based law firm, which filed the lawsuit for Suffolk County on Aug. 31, 2016, has won more than $1 billion against drug manufacturers, including opioid manufacturers, in the last decade, Hanly said; the cases were settled with none retried.

Among them was a case against Perdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, he said. “We had litigation against that company that included 5,000 individuals who got addicted after having been lawfully prescribed,” Hanly said. 

The settlement was reportedly for $75 million.

Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) introduced the resolution to study the lawsuit’s feasibility nearly three years ago, with the county announcing its decision to file a motion last September. Simmons, Hanly & Conroy filed the lawsuit last summer for the county in its quest to recoup funds for the increased costs it has had to shoulder as a result of the alarming opioid drug-addiction spike. 

Calarco said the plaintiffs have filed seven different motions to get the lawsuit dismissed. “The motions run the gamut that include statute of limitations,” he added.

Hanly said his law firm was preparing their answer to the motions. “We are confident of our case,” he said. 

That might be underscored by a growing number of recent reports pointing to a pushback against prescribing opioids as a routine means to manage pain. On March 22, 2016, the FDA in a press release announced enhanced warnings for immediate-release opioid pain medications related to risks of misuse, abuse, addiction, overdose and death. 

A Feb. 14 report from the American College of Physicians in the Annals of Internal Medicine recommended evidence-based new treatment guidelines for acute and subacute low-back pain: drugless remedies should be first-line therapy, the guidelines said, and opioid pain killers such as OxyContin and similar drugs should be a last-resort consideration. 

“For the treatment of chronic low back pain, physicians should select therapies that have the fewest harms and costs, since there were no clear comparative advantages for most treatments compared to one another … Physicians should consider opioids as a last option for treatment and only in patients who have failed other therapies, as they are associated with substantial harms, including the risk of addiction or accidental overdose,” the statement said. Low-back pain was one of the most common reasons for physician visits in the U.S.

“The big one is Purdue Pharma,” Calarco said. Defendants named in the lawsuit include 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 Pharmaceuticals Inc., Janssen Pharmaceutica Inc., Endo Health Solutions Inc., Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc., Russell Porteny, Perry Fine, Scott Fishman and Lynn Webster.

“You often hear about gateway drugs that lead to addiction, but now it’s not from the path of gateway drugs, but from a doctor’s prescription,” Calarco said. “And this is the crux of the case; we’ve named four different doctors as well as the pharmaceutical companies.”

Suffolk County employs approximately 10,000 people in 22 departments and is one of the largest employers on Long Island, Calarco pointed out. 

Hanly said there was no dollar figure assigned as yet for a settlement. 

“There’s a huge amount of data the county has to formulate regarding the cost of the opioid epidemic including the cost of drug rehabilitation and law enforcement,” he added. “That’s a long-term process. It will take tens of millions if not hundreds of millions.”

The fallout from resulting opioid drug addiction includes the brutal Father’s Day murders in 2011, which is mentioned in the lawsuit, when David Laffer, 33, from Medford, walked into Havens Drugs on Father’s Day to rob oxycodone and other painkillers for his wife Melinda Brady. Laffer shot and killed pharmacist Raymond Ferguson, 45, drugstore employee Jennifer Mejia, 17, and customers Jaime Taccetta, 33, and Bryan Sheffield, 71.

Andrew Kolodny, MD, director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University, former chief medical officer for Phoenix House Foundation Inc., and executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, co-founded PROP when he began seeing young adults from the suburbs in his clinical practice who became addicted to prescription opioids. People were dying from a new epidemic that was emerging. 

“It was clear there was a problem in the U.S. with OxyContin in 1999,” Kolodny said. “In 2002, there were reports coming out of New England and Appalachia that people were getting addicted and dying. If we look at data, in 1999 a few states were having a problem and the problem has steadily worsened over the past 20 years.”

Kolodny said the media has been covering the issue since 2001 in such publications as The New York Times Magazine and Newsweek. “But the way the opioid manufacturers framed it, the problem wasn’t the way doctors treat patients,” he said. Opioid manufacturers didn’t want doctors to prescribe less, he said, but called for a balanced approach so that drug dealers didn’t easily get their hands on the medications. 

“The problem is that they are highly addictive,” Kolodny said.  “And anyone who takes them repeatedly because a doctor prescribed them or it’s a teenager having fun with them, if you take them too regularly, you can easily become hooked.”

County statistics on opioids

The following statistics are from the Suffolk County Health Assessment Report 2014-2017:

• In Suffolk County, deaths involving opiates have risen by 30 percent in the period between 2007-2011. 

• The incidence of one opiate in particular, oxycodone (which appears in 33 percent of opioid-related deaths), nearly doubled between 2007 and 2011. 

• From 2007-2010, opioid pain reliever abuse rose 87 percent in New York, most notably in Suffolk County and Staten Island. According to the Suffolk County Medical Examiner, deaths due in part to non-heroin opioid deaths rose by 70 percent between 2004 and 2011.  In Suffolk County, there were 214 opioid-related deaths in 2012. 

• In 2013, Narcan saved 563 lives in Suffolk County.

• According to New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services,  18,724 unique individuals were served by chemical dependency treatment programs in Suffolk County in 2012. The primary payment sources for treatment were Medicaid (24 percent), Medicaid Managed Care (11.1 percent), self-pay (13.9 percent), private insurance (9.3 percent), private insurance managed care (19.8 percent) and other/none (21.1 percent). 

• According to Suffolk County emergency room statistics, there were 8,271 visits in 2012 due to opiate use.

• In 2013, according to Suffolk County emergency room data, there were 271 deaths attributed to drugs, of which 197 involved opiate use.