More Massachusetts cities and towns are taking pharmaceutical companies to court seeking compensation for the damage wrought by the opioid crisis.
The number of plaintiffs has grown to more than 40 since Greenfield became the first town in the Commonwealth to file a lawsuit late last year. Worcester is the largest city in Massachusetts to sue so far, and Lowell the latest.
"I feel strongly that pharmaceutical companies need to be held accountable for this," said Lowell Councilor Rodney Elliott, upon introducing a measure last month to include his city in the growing list of Massachusetts municipalities that are represented by a coalition of lawyers known as Massachusetts Opioid Litigation Attorneys, or MOLA.
MOLA is part of a national consortium of attorneys in Massachusetts, Kentucky and Ohio filing these kinds of lawsuits. In Massachusetts the plaintiffs are represented by a coalition of the Boston-area law firms Sweeney Merrigan Law, Kopelman & Paige PC and Rodman, Rodman & Sandman.
They have not named a dollar amount in their cases, but the lawyers are seeking money for cities and towns afflicted by the crisis.
“We’re not doing this for a quick, nominal recovery that doesn’t provide meaningful change and a meaningful solution for this crisis,” said J. Tucker Merrigan, partner at Sweeney Merrigan. “We have a massive problem and we have massively profitable pharmaceutical companies.”
Everett, a Boston suburb hard-hit by the opioid crisis, filed a lawsuit in January. In a statement Mayor Carlo DeMaria, Jr. said "corporate drug distributors ... funneled millions of pills into small-town ‘pain clinics’ that were merely a front for crime rings – all to increase their profits year over year as the addiction crisis continued to spiral."
“It makes me sick, and they should pay for what they have done to our society," DeMaria said. "On the other side, I want to thank those non-profits, public agencies and individuals who are out there every day fighting for those who are in crisis.”
Boston is not among the cities and towns on the list, but Mayor Marty Walsh has said he's considering filing a lawsuit, too.
“I strongly believe that the pharmaceutical industry is the main offender and sustainer of the opioid crisis,” Walsh said in a press release. “Their distribution and marketing of narcotics is unforgivingly reckless, causing irreversible devastation to our families and significant damages to cities nationwide.”
When adjusted for age, the opioid-related death rate in Massachusetts is more than twice the national average, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
By filing individual lawsuits instead of a single class-action case, lawyer Tucker Merrigan said each city has the opportunity to win a payment proportional to the scale of the problem at the local level, to be used however they see fit. That could mean new addiction treatment programs and centers in one town and more training for police officers in another.
“It is very much a backyard solution to a backyard problem,” said Merrigan, who grew up in Greenfield, the first town to file suit in Massachusetts. His father was a pioneer of drug courts in the state, and Merrigan says he has family members who have struggled with opioid addiction.
“No one is immune from this crisis,” he said. “We tend to blame the victim. This lawsuit seeks to expose that this was a manufactured man-made problem that was entirely preventable, and because we blame the victim we don’t realize the scale of it.”
The crux of their legal argument is that drugmakers used deceptive marketing practices to flood cities in Massachusetts and other states with addictive opioids. They argue the opioid manufacturers and distributors profited while addictions festered.
“The case against the manufacturers is based on the concept that they marketed the drugs as chronic, lifetime medications and coined the term pseudo-addiction,’” said Merrigan. “They’re saying, ‘don’t be worried about their addiction, be worried that you’re not giving them enough pain medication, and give them more.’”
McKesson, one of the pharmaceutical companies targeted by the lawsuits, said in an emailed statement that they are “committed to maintaining—and continuously enhancing—strong programs designed to prevent opioid diversion within the pharmaceutical supply chain.”
“As a distributor, McKesson only distributes opioid medications to pharmacies that are [Drug Enforcement Agency]-registered and state-licensed, and we only distribute in response to orders that pharmacies place – we do not drive demand,” said spokeswoman Kristin Hunter Chasen in the statement.
AmerisourceBergen, a wholesale drug distributor named in the lawsuits, said in a statement that they “are committed to collaborating with all stakeholders, including in Massachusetts, on ways to combat opioid abuse.”
Both companies said they followed federal rules governing opioids. AmerisourceBergen said opioid-based products make up less than two percent of the company’s sales.
“Beyond our reporting and immediate halting of tens of thousands of potentially suspicious orders, we refuse service to customers we deem as a diversion risk and provide daily reports to the DEA that detail the quantity, type, and the receiving pharmacy of every single order of these products that we distribute,” said the statement from a spokesman at AmerisourceBergen.
Many have likened the Massachusetts' lawyers strategy to the legal fight against tobacco companies in the 1990s, which ended in more than $200 billion in settlements. Merrigan welcomed the comparison.
“This is an opportunity to play offense on this issue and up until now we’ve been playing defense,” he said.