Options Weighed for Opioid Lawsuits

By Lord, Rich | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), January 22, 2018 | Go to article overview

Options Weighed for Opioid Lawsuits


Lord, Rich, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


With tens of billions of dollars at stake, cities, counties and states are lining up to sue companies that sold and distributed prescription opioids. But even as Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and the state prepare to join the fray, there's disagreement on the best path to a settlement.

On Thursday, Pittsburgh Solicitor Lourdes Sanchez Ridge said that Pittsburgh would imminently request proposals from law firms that want to represent the city against the companies that make and distribute opioids. Allegheny County is a week away from receiving proposals from firms that would do the same for it. Philadelphia sued a slew of opioid firms on Wednesday.

Other area counties have signed up private counsel and filed their own opioid damages cases in state court, even as 200-plus lawsuits from all over the country have been swept into a federal courtroom in Cleveland.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, among the leaders of a multi-state probe of the opioid makers and distributors, said Wednesday that he isn't about to tell other elected officials whether to sue - but he's skeptical about local lawsuits.

"I don't think, at the end of the day, it's particularly helpful" for innumerable local governments to sue, he said, at a forum on the opioid crisis in Youngwood, Westmoreland County. "I think our investigation is the only vehicle that will yield a real result."

Plaintiff's lawyers representing counties, though, would rather bring cases in local courts.

"If history's any guide, I think using the state Attorney General would be a mistake," said attorney Robert Peirce, who has sued opioid makers and distributors for around a dozen counties, including Beaver, Cambria, Fayette, Franklin, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland. "The state AG has a limited number of investigators and lawyers and they're involved in all sorts of things."

"The last thing any of these companies want," he added, "is a trial in one of the counties in which they've seen all of these deaths."

Pay for lies?

The Westmoreland County coroner has already counted 181 overdoses for last year - breaking the prior year's record of 174 - with another 12 possible drug deaths pending the receipt of toxicology reports. Like its neighbors, the county is pouring state-supplied money into treatment and prevention, while local tax dollars cover emergency responses; police, court and jail time to handle addiction-driven crime; and, where all else fails, autopsies.

While today's big killer is fentanyl made in illicit labs, governments are trying to pin blame on American companies that profited from addictive painkillers that stoked the hunger for narcotics. Hundreds of local governments have filed cases against pharmaceutical players, including many of the hundreds of lawsuits against drug manufacturers and distributors which are now handled out of Cleveland by U.S. District Judge Dan A. Polster.

The opioid makers and distributors "told a lie about the addictive nature of the product and both industries maximized their profits by not telling the truth about what they were selling," said attorney Mike Moore, of Flowood, Miss., who runs a plaintiff's law firm in the state in which he served as attorney general for 16 years.

When Mr. Moore was Mississippi's top lawman, he coordinated the lawsuit against the tobacco industry that led to a $246 billion national settlement. In private practice, he started filing cases against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma around 13 years ago, and since 2014 he has convinced four states, including Ohio, to sue opioid makers and distributors. He's a key coordinator of the legal assault on the companies.

"I'm really searching for a solution to the opioid epidemic, rather than, let's see how much money we can recover," Mr. Moore said this month. He sees a potential resolution in which the pharmaceutical industry would dedicate $40 to $50 billion to treatment and $10 to $15 billion to emergency response over several years, plus $150 million a year for prevention, for a decade. …

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