Boston pursues lawsuit against opioid manufacturers

Aidan McGovern

Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced last month that the City of Boston filed a lawsuit in Suffolk County Superior Court against several members of the pharmaceutical industry for their alleged roles in spreading the opioid epidemic.

The lawsuit, which the city filed on Sept. 13, names 13 different commercial opioid manufacturers, four distributors and one local doctor. In a press release issued the same day as the lawsuit, the mayor’s office alleged that these parties are responsible for contributing to deaths across the city.

“[The defendants] have contributed to the local opioid epidemic through misleading marketing and reckless dissemination of opioids that has led to the deaths of more than 723 Boston residents since 2013,” the mayor’s office alleged in a Sept. 13 press release.

The announcement comes after the city issued a Request for Information in February intended to assist its legal approach for the lawsuit. After reviewing the nine responses that were submitted over the course of the ensuing months, the city moved forward with Motley Rice LLC, a law firm specialized in litigation cases focused on wrongdoing and negligence.

Walsh’s team outlined their reasons for selecting the firm for this particular case back in June, citing the leading role they believe the firm is currently playing in “helping state and local governments across the country address the opioid crisis by investigating and litigating against pharmaceutical companies.”

One of the many areas of focus for the firm when it comes to different types of tort liability cases is opioid litigation. This is an area in which they have established legal and historical precedent as the firm that represented the City of Chicago and Santa Clara County, California, both alleging “deceptive marketing that misled the public about the drugs’ highly addictive properties.”

The Chicago suit made history by becoming the first of its kind to avoid motions to dismiss and to enter discovery, a period that takes place amidst pre-trial procedures during which each party can obtain evidence from the other party. In the case of Santa Clara County, a $1.6 million settlement was reached in May 2017 with three different pharmaceutical companies, the funds from which are expected to help “substance abuse treatment and education” in Santa Clara and Orange counties.     

While Boston is the latest to make headlines for their advances in this legal pursuit, it is not the first city in Massachusetts to seek a lawsuit against the opioid industry. Framingham and Danvers are just two examples of other communities from around the commonwealth that have joined more than 70 towns and cities in suing the industry. These communities have joined a growing movement to hold drug companies and distributors accountable and to recover damages that rose from this public health crisis.

Data and statistics released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reveal that, as of August 2018, the total number of opioid-related overdose deaths from 2000 to 2017 have been the highest in Middlesex, Essex and Suffolk counties, the counties in which residents of Framingham, Danvers and Boston respectively reside. With the death toll in each of these three counties exceeding 2,000, the decisions of these local governments to take legal action assume a new context of urgency.

Legal action against pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma L.P. has even been taken by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who announced a lawsuit in June, stressing the long-term effects the epidemic has had on the lives of Massachusetts residents.

“The opioid epidemic is killing five people every day in Massachusetts,” said Healey. “The more drugs they sold, the more money they made, and the more people in Massachusetts suffered and died.”

Purdue responded to The News’ request for comment by reaffirming a statement they released Jun. 12, the same day the lawsuit had been filed.

“We share the Attorney General’s concern about the opioid crisis. We are disappointed, however, that in the midst of good faith negotiations with many states, the Commonwealth has decided to pursue a costly and protracted litigation process,” the statement read.

The News was also directed to an open letter published on Purdue’s website detailing their decision to no longer promote opioids to prescribers to help limit “a patient’s unnecessary exposure to opioids.”   

Boston is certainly no stranger to the ongoing dialogue over opioid abuse and addiction issues. The U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams came to the city in January to give his thoughts on the crisis at “The Opioid Crisis in America: A Conversation with the U.S. Surgeon General,” an event hosted by Boston University.

“One of the priorities of my tenure is to continue to educate the public about the severity of the epidemic and what they can do to respond,” Adams said at the event.

He called for a need to spread a fundamental awareness regarding the relevance and danger of the crisis, citing research showcased by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The findings of the research, done by Robert Blendon, Richard L. Menschel and John Benson, showed that only 28% of the American public viewed the opioid epidemic as a “national emergency,” and that only “about half of the public thinks there’s a treatment for prescription-painkiller addiction that’s effective long-term.”

The Surgeon General also mentioned the importance of making Naloxone, a drug with the potential to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, more available in communities nationwide to serve as the “tourniquet” for the “bleed.” He made this comparison when talking about the importance of temporary, life-saving action, as well as the long-term treatment process in addressing this health issue.

In an interview with The News, Walsh’s deputy press secretary Ana Vivas said that, in the event that the City wins a payout from the pharmaceuticals lawsuit, the people of Boston can expect continued commitment from Walsh in seeking justice for those affected by the opioid crisis, as well as making sure that those he believes to be responsible are held accountable.

Vivas also said that damages recovered as a potential result of the payout could come in the form of additional funding for things like specialist training, medical care, supplies of Naloxone or other programming.

“This litigation will be an ongoing process and the City is working with outside counsel to  continue to collect data and information to understand the full extent of the those costs,” Vivas said.“The City will work with our partners to ensure that any damages recovered from this litigation are used within the framework of combating the opioid crisis and supporting recovery services.”