Peabody joins lawsuit against opioid manufacturers

BOSTON — As the opioid crisis sweeps the nation, Peabody is the latest city to join a multi-region suit to hold drug manufacturers and pharmacies financially accountable for fueling the epidemic.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court, targets the largest U.S. pharmaceutical companies, including OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, Mallinckrodt LLC, maker of Oxycodone, and Actavis Pharma, which produces Fentanyl.

The suit alleges the companies pushed highly addictive, dangerous opioids, falsely telling doctors that patients would rarely get addicted to the drugs. It says the firms violated the federal Controlled Substances Act which requires vendors to monitor, identify and report suspicious activity in the size and frequency of opioid shipments to pharmacies and hospitals.

"Cities impacted by effects of this corporate greed are left to pay the freight for this malfeasance through increased healthcare and law enforcement costs, and through the lives of their residents," read to a statement from Massachusetts Opioid Litigation Attorneys (MOLA), a consortium of law firms filing suit against the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies. "It has never been more important for cities and towns in Massachusetts to take the fight to the source."

The suit also names the nation's biggest pharmacy chains, including CVS, Rite Aid Corp., Walgreens, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. The 317-page complaint alleges they committed negligence, and reckless conduct in distributing medications that contributed to the opioid crisis.

For example, two of the nation’s biggest drug distributors shipped 12.3 million doses of powerful opioids to one pharmacy in a West Virginia town with a population of 500 over an eight-year period, a congressional committee revealed.

"That should have set off alarm bells," said Richard M. Sandman, one of the MOLA attorneys from Boston representing Peabody.

The pharmaceutical firms have denied wrongdoing, noting they sell drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They blame doctors who prescribe the drugs, pharmacies that fill them, and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration for not doing enough to oversee sales of legally-controlled substances.

For their part, the large pharmacy chains are asking why they are being sued by hundreds of cities and counties over the opioid crisis instead of the criminals who pushed drugs to addicts.

Peabody has joined Lynn, Malden, Revere and 125 other Bay State communities aimed at recovering cash damages from the drug manufacturers and distributors who have flooded communities with opioids, MOLA charged.

The consortium is seeking an unspecified amount of  damages for past costs of law enforcement, needle exchanges, Narcan, a medication used to block the effects of opioids, especially in overdose cases, emergency medical services, and future damages for the foreseeable expenditures of taxpayer dollars for treatment, education, and prevention.

"Peabody has spent extra money for police and training officers to administer Narcan and we are looking to reimburse the city for those past and future costs," said Sandman.

No taxpayer money is used to pay the attorneys. If successful, the team of lawyers will collect 25 percent of any judgement.   

Peabody's suit has been moved to Ohio where a federal judge is pushing for a settlement. The first three trials, if needed, are set for March.

There is precedent for recovering cash against U.S. firms. In 1998, the attorneys general of 46 states, including Massachusetts, settled their Medicaid lawsuits against the four largest U.S. tobacco companies, Philip Morris, R. J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, and Lorillard to pay for their state's tobacco-related healthcare costs. Under the terms of the record-setting deal, tobacco companies agreed to pay a $246 billion settlement over 25 years.

Some drug distributors have already paid penalties for their negligence. Purdue Pharma agreed to pay the Department of Justice $635 million in 2007, then the largest settlement with a drug company. The narcotic maker pled guilty in federal court to criminal charges that they misled regulators, doctors and patients about the risk of OxyContin addiction and its potential to be abused.

In addition, CVS, Walgreens, and Cardinal Health have also paid fines, sometimes multiple times, for similar violations.

But cities argue it's not enough. Purdue, for example has generated sales of more than $35 billion since releasing OxyContin in 1995.

Consider these numbers: Peabody had a dozen overdose opioid deaths in 2013. But that number nearly doubled to 23 in 2017, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Overdose calls increased by nearly 36 percent to 163 last year up from 163 in 2015.

In Massachusetts, the number of deaths linked to opioid overdose has doubled since 2013 from 993 to 1,982 last year. Nationwide, more than 350,000 people have died from overdoses since 1999, more than the number of soldiers killed in the Vietnam conflict, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last year, President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency.

"The number of people dying from opiods is astronomical and it's a one degree of separation kind of situation," Sandman said. "Everyone knows someone who has been impacted."

Mayor Edward A. Bettencourt Jr. did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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