CASPER — The City of Casper has filed a federal lawsuit against more than 15 opioid manufacturers and distributors across the country, alleging the drug companies misrepresented the addictive properties of their prescription painkillers, the city announced Thursday.
“We know that we’ve had many citizens in our community who have become addicted to these medications and the drug companies have some responsibility for that,” Mayor Charlie Powell said Thursday. “... This is about seeking compensation, but also about trying to change these practices so something like this doesn’t happen again in the future.”
The lawsuit seeks millions of dollars in total damages to pay for costs of care for Casper’s residents as well as to recover the city’s costs for responding to the opioid epidemic, according to a press release from the city manager’s office.
The release states that these opioid lawsuits are being consolidated before Judge Dan Polster in U.S. District Court in Cleveland for workup and discovery. Once completed, Casper will then have the opportunity to have its case decided in Wyoming.
Powell said Wednesday that the city’s leaders decided to take action during a recent executive session.
“We’ve had many young people die prematurely as a result (of these drugs),” he said. “Any member of the community should be concerned.”
Jason Ochs, a Jackson attorney who filed the suit for the city, said he’d kept city leaders informed on a similar suit filed by Carbon County last spring.
“I think it was just a matter of the council members and the city attorney … coming to the conclusion that this decision made sense for the city of Casper,” he told the Star-Tribune on Thursday, “that they wanted to declare and commit that they wanted to stop this from being any more of an epidemic in our city than it already is.”
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court earlier this week by Ochs, names more than a dozen defendants. They include OxyContin maker and opioid giant Purdue Pharma; Cephalon Inc., which produces opioids; Teva Ltd., which — according to the suit — works with Cephalon to “market and sell Cephalon products” as well as making and selling its own products; Janssen Pharmaceuticals, which produces opioids including duragesic, or fentanyl; Endo Health Solutions, which sells opioids like Percocet; and Allergan and Watson Laboratories, which are both linked to Actavis, another defendant who makes opioids.
Also named as defendants are Walgreens and Walmart, which both have sold prescription opioids.
“They’ve had the same responsibility to notify the distributors, the big distributors ... of any suspicious activity or requests and/or prescriptions and/or an unusual amount that was coming from one doctor,” Ochs said. “There were lines of defense put into place that we contend were not being followed by these various companies.”
In a statement, Purdue said it shared the city’s concerns about the opioid crisis and would work collaboratively with Casper and the state of Wyoming to bring forward meaningful solutions.
However, the company said it vigorously denied the city’s allegations and looked forward to the opportunity to defend itself.
“The city claims Purdue acted improperly by communicating with prescribers about scientific and medical information that FDA has expressly considered and continues to approve,” the company said in a statement. “We believe it is inappropriate for the city to substitute its judgment for the judgment of the regulatory, scientific and medical experts at FDA.”
Casper’s lawsuit is similar to the one filed by Ochs on behalf of Carbon County and to suits filed by hundreds of counties and municipalities across the country in that it takes broad aim at both the manufacturers of opioids — like Purdue — for allegedly using deceptive marketing and other means to sell the medications and the distributors, which allegedly ignored the lines of defense Ochs described.
“This suit takes aim at the two primary causes of the opioid crisis: (a) a marketing scheme involving the false and deceptive marketing of prescription opioids, which was designed to dramatically increase the demand for and sale of opioids and opioids prescriptions,” the city’s attorneys wrote in the nearly 200-page long lawsuit, “and (b) a supply chain scheme, pursuant to which the various entities in the supply chain failed to design and operate systems to identify suspicious orders of prescription drugs, maintain effective controls against diversion, and halt suspicious orders when they were identified.”
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there were 17,029 overdose deaths that involved opioids in 2017, a jump from 3,442 in 1999. Overdose deaths involving heroin — considered a cheaper replacement for opioids for addicts — jumped from 1,960 in 1999 to 15,482 in 2017.
Among other things, the lawsuit alleges the pharmaceutical companies worked to introduce opioids into the mainstream of medicine. “In 2015, Wyoming providers wrote 65.3 opioid prescriptions per 100 persons,” according to the suit, which cites the drug abuse institute as its source.
“The increases in opioid deaths and treatments are directly (tied) to the prescribing practices created by Defendants,” the suit alleges. “According to the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), opioid deaths and treatment admissions are tied to opioid sales.”
The suit also charges that Purdue and the other opioid manufacturer defendants “spread false or misleading information about the safety of opioids,” referring to each companies’ marketing efforts as a “scheme.” These “schemes” allegedly included making “false and misleading claims,” according to the suit, that included “downplay(ing) the serious risk of addiction” and “den(ying) the risks of higher dosages,” among several others.
The lawsuit also claims that the opioid manufacturers paid doctors who later spoke in favor of prescribing opioids. One — Dr. Russell Portenoy, who for years led the charge in efforts to prescribe opioids to pain patients — later acknowledged that “innumerable lectures” he gave about the drugs “weren’t true.” Those lectures, according to the lawsuit, included claims that “fewer than 1 percent of patients would become addicted to opioids.”
The suit claims that the practices of the defendants ultimately negatively affected Casper and continues to harm the city.
“Each Distributor Defendant knew or should have known that the opioids reaching the CITY OF CASPER were not being consumed for medical purposes,” the suit alleges, “and that the amount of opioids flowing to the CITY OF CASPER was far in excess of what could be consumed for medically necessary purposes.”
Casper joins a growing list
The city is the latest Wyoming entity to sue major opioid manufacturers. Before Carbon County filed its suit last spring, the Northern Arapaho Tribe announced that it was suing a number of pharmaceutical companies and distributors, including Purdue. Carbon County announced its suit the next month, and in October, the state of Wyoming filed a state lawsuit against Purdue.
Litigation against the pharmaceutical companies, and Purdue in particular, is becoming increasingly common across the United States. Massachusetts recently announced it was joining the fray, while counties in neighboring states, as well as the state of Montana, have taken similar action.
Casper’s suit, in fact, appears in parts to be borrowed from complaints filed in other cases. For example, in the city’s lawsuit, it references a Warren County, Wyoming. No such place exists. Other language from the lawsuit that details the companies’ alleged behavior nationally can be found in similar lawsuits filed by other counties and municipalities.
Ochs said more than 1,500 counties and municipalities have filed opioid-related litigation, a number that he expects to grow. He said there’s a trial set for October in Ohio for counties there that filed litigation, and he — as well as other firms across the country involved in opioid suits — are helping in the buildup.
“Frankly it will define where this litigation is going,” he said. “Will it be an enormous verdict, will it be a defense verdict or somewhere in the middle?”
He said the city’s lawsuit will follow Carbon County’s efforts: It will be consolidated into the sprawling litigation in Ohio for the purposes of per-trial work. Should there ever be a jury trial, however, that case would be tried here in Wyoming.