As the opioid epidemic consumes lives, futures and fiscal resources, many municipalities are turning to the courts to try to force pharmaceutical companies to shoulder some of the responsibility.
Nearly 200 local governments across the country have filed lawsuits against drug manufacturers, including Greenfield, Mass. The lawsuits allege that these companies knew about the addictive properties of their drugs but withheld this information as they inundated communities with a wide array of opioid-based painkillers. The lawsuits are seeking compensation for families but also for public agencies such as police departments, health centers and first responders, whose budgets are strained by the uptick in emergencies related to drug overdoses.
Last week, Mayor Marty Walsh said he plans to issue a call for proposals to law firms interested in pursuing a case against major pharmaceutical companies. The city has been “collecting relevant information in preparation for potential litigation,” according to a statement released by the mayor’s office last week.
The Walsh administration could have a partner at the state level as well. Attorney General Maura Healey's office is among dozens of other attorneys general that are seeking information from five opioid manufacturers and three distributors to determine whether they misrepresented the dangers of prescription painkillers.
Healey's office already secured a $500,000 settlement from the drug manufacturer Insys Therapeutics Inc. for paying kickbacks to doctors who improperly prescribed its painkiller, which is meant to provide relief for terminal cancer patients. The investigation found that the company tried to market the drug for mild pain relief use, despite the drug being 100 times more potent than heroin.
"The legal theory here is based on deceptive marketing, that the pharmaceutical companies knew about the hazards of Vicodin, Oxycontin and other opioids but nevertheless continued to peddle those drugs to doctors, and therefore deserve to shoulder a large part of the legal responsibility for the rise in opioid addiction," said Daniel Medwed, WGBH News' legal analyst.
Medwed said this legal path does have some precedent, specifically in how states sued tobacco companies.
"Both campaigns share this deceptive marketing strategy that the industry basically put a fraud on consumers," Medwed said.
But Medwed cautioned that local government with limited budgets could be facing a daunting and drawn out battle in the courts.
"A classic defense strategy in cases like this is delay, delay, delay — file a lot of pretrial motions, ask for a lot of pretrial discovery to grind down the less wealthy or under-resourced plaintiffs," said Medwed.