SCRANTON – Pennsylvania counties are joining the nationwide explosion of litigation against the makers of prescription painkillers that has been fueled by private attorneys who could be in for a massive payday.

Two lawsuits recently filed by Pennsylvania counties target pharmaceutical companies and seek to recoup many thousands of dollars used to combat that same epidemic. Filed in federal court, they follow a pair previously brought in Pennsylvania state courts.

Handling the litigation for Luzerne and Columbia counties is the Baron & Budd firm of Dallas, whereas local representation for both cases will be from Kingston firm Fellerman & Ciarimboli Law.

Attorneys in the case are working on a contingent-fee basis and will receive nothing if the suits are unsuccessful, but will receive 30 percent of the proceeds if the plaintiffs are victorious.

On Nov. 8, a 208-page civil complaint was filed on behalf of Luzerne County in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Scranton, in order to “eliminate the hazard to public health and safety caused by the opioid epidemic, to abate the nuisance caused thereby, and to recoup monies that have been spent because of defendants’ false, deceptive and unfair marketing and/or unlawful diversion of prescription opioids.”

The litigation was proposed by Luzerne County Manager C. David Pedri and authorized by the Luzerne County Council in September.

Named as defendants are Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Cephalon, Johnson & Johnson, Noramco, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Allergan, Watson Pharmaceuticals, Actavis, Mallinckrodt, Amerisourcebergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson Corp.

According to the complaint, the defendants violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act by knowing full well the economic damages that would result from the aggressive marketing of opioids, and nonetheless proceeded with that business model, employing illegal actions and factual omissions.

“The manufacturers aggressively pushed highly addictive, dangerous opioids, falsely representing to doctors that patients would only rarely succumb to drug addiction. These pharmaceutical companies aggressively advertised to and persuaded doctors to prescribe highly addictive, dangerous opioids, turned patients into drug addicts for their own corporate profit. Such actions were intentional and/or unlawful,” the complaint reads.

Additionally, the lawsuits accuse the defendants of “intentionally and/or unlawfully breached their legal duties under federal and state law to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders of prescription opiates.”

According to the lawsuits, the counties have sustained damages in the forms of:

- Costs for providing medical care, additional therapeutic, and prescription drug purchases, and other treatments for patients suffering from opioid-related addiction or disease, including overdoses and deaths;

-Costs for providing treatment, counseling, and rehabilitation services;

-Costs for providing treatment of infants born with opioid-related medical conditions; 

-Costs associated with law enforcement and public safety relating to the opioid epidemic; and

-Costs associated with providing care for children whose parents suffer from opioid-related disability or incapacitation.

The litigation contains comprehensive statistics on opioid overdoses and deaths from national, state and local perspectives, which the plaintiffs say point to the local and underlying reasons for taking the defendants to court.

“Luzerne County’s drug overdose death rate has increased alarmingly in recent years, with the number of deaths rising from 67 in 2013 and 2014, to 95 in 2015,41 and reaching 140 in 2016. This ranked tenth-highest for counties in Pennsylvania in 2015 and seventh-highest in 2016,” the suit says.

Among the “alarming” statistics cited in the complaint, it noted that Luzerne County’s 140 overdose deaths in 2016 (for a population of approximately 313,000) was a death rate four times that of New York City and that “the county has experienced so many drug overdose deaths, in fact, that the county coroner had trouble finding room for the bodies.”

“We feel strongly about our case. We’ve been hit hard by this epidemic,” Pedri said.

Pedri reiterated how the number of opioid drug overdoses in Luzerne County have increased in recent years, and how the costs associated with fighting the scourge have affected the efficiency of everything from the local prison system, district attorney and public defender’s offices, to programs targeted to children and youth.

“A whole swath of county services,” Pedri stated.

Lackawanna and Delaware counties have already initiated similar cases.

U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania cases 3:17-cv-02043 & 4:17-cv-02067

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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