Miami Launches Suit Against Drug Cos. Over Opioid Abuse

Share us on: By Kat Greene

Law360 (April 16, 2018, 11:26 PM EDT) -- The city of Miami took on a handful of drug companies including OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma Inc. and distributor Walgreens with a sweeping lawsuit on Monday seeking to hold the companies responsible for their purported role in the opioid crisis.

The Magic City accused a group of drug manufacturers and distributors of aggressively marketing opioids as safe and then failing to report or stop the diversion of the prescription-only drugs for illicit use, according to a 134-page lawsuit filed in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court on Monday.

The suit lays out a complex web of actions by the companies that, the city says, led to a sharp increase in opioid addiction in the U.S. and in Miami, which in turn creates bigger problems for the city, including more funds spent from city health care plans and workers’ compensation plans to cover opioids and funds for the city’s first responders answering overdose calls, according to the suit.

Miami City Manager Emilio T. Gonzalez said in a statement that the pharmaceutical industry knowingly inflicted the burden on Miami and the U.S. at large.

“This industry has been allowed to get away with this injustice for far too long,” he said. “It is time that they are held accountable and remedy the devastating circumstances that they created.”

The suit names Purdue Pharma Inc., Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc., Johnson & Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc., Cardinal Health Inc., Insys Therapeutics, Mallinckrodt LLCMcKesson Corp., AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp. and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. as defendants.

Miami-Dade County said earlier this year it had hired a team of litigators led by Podhurst Orseck PA to prepare legal action against drug manufacturers and distributors. Miami-Dade had 228 drug-related overdose deaths in 2016, and statewide, Florida hospitals are spending almost $1 billion per year to treat opioid-related illnesses.

The City of Miami’s lawsuit joins a wave of litigation filed by local governments seeking to address the crisis, and in December at least 115 lawsuits in districts across the country were centralized in multidistrict litigation in the Northern District of Ohio, court records show.

And earlier this month, the Navajo Nation joined several tribes that have also filed suit against a similar group of defendants seeking to hold the companies responsible for damage to Native American tribes that say they’ve been severely hurt by opioid abuse.

Miami, for its part, said drugmakers kicked off a new marketing strategy in the mid-1990s that included a series of different moves to persuade prescribers that, even though opioids are addictive, that addiction and risk could be managed by doctors, according to the complaint. Those assurances — plus some alleged kickbacks — gave doctors a “false sense of security” in prescribing the drugs freely and sometimes as a first-line treatment for pain, the city said.

Miami said sales representatives from Insys and Purdue were the “most frequent visitors” to the Magic City between 2013 and 2016, with at least 1,398 and 368 visits, respectively, and that each of those visits coincided with payments to prescribers for promotional speaking, food and beverage, consulting, education and other payments, according to the suit.

In that time period, Purdue, Teva, Janssen, Endo, Mallinckrodt and Insys paid prescribers in Miami $340,368.24, according to the complaint.

Meanwhile, opioid addiction and abuse has contributed to rising costs for the city’s first responders and public funds, Miami said. For example, the city’s Department of Fire-Rescue responded to 1,717 opioid-related calls involving the use of naloxone in 2016, up from 668 calls the year before, according to the suit.

The suit includes claims for public nuisance, violations of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, fraudulent misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation, negligence and unjust enrichment, and calls for damages and an injunction stopping the companies from continuing their allegedly improper tactics.

Some of the companies named as defendants in Miami’s suit have already taken a public stance on opioid abuse, including making internal changes they say could curb the problem.

Purdue, for example, said earlier this year that it was cutting its sales team and that it would no longer send sales representatives to drug prescribers to tout the company’s pain products, according to a company announcement.

The company said in a statement Tuesday that it is deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis, and that it's dedicated to being part of the solution.

"As a company grounded in science, we must balance patient access to FDA-approved medicines with collaborative efforts to solve this public health challenge," the company said. "Although our products account for less than 2% of the total opioid prescriptions, as a company, we’ve distributed the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, developed three of the first four FDA-approved opioid medications with abuse-deterrent properties and partner with law enforcement to ensure access to naloxone."

AmerisourceBergen, one of the distributors named in the suit, noted that in November it proposed comprehensive legislative action to address the epidemic and that it has made operational commitments to combat abuse of the drugs.

The company said in a statement on Monday that it’s committed to collaborating with all stakeholders, including Miami, to stop opioid abuse, and said it provides daily reports to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration outlining every single order of the products it distributes.

“We are dedicated to doing our part as a distributor to mitigate the diversion of these drugs without interfering with clinical decisions made by doctors, who interact directly with patients and decide what treatments are most appropriate for their care,” the company said.

Janssen said in a statement that the company's promotional and marketing activities for the drugs had been "appropriate and responsible."

"The labels for our prescription opioid pain medicines provide information about their risks and benefits, and the allegations made against our company are baseless and unsubstantiated," the company said. "In fact, our medications have some of the lowest rates of abuse among this class of medications."

Teva said the company recognizes that critical public health issues in communities across the U.S. that results from the misuse and abuse of opioids.

"To that end, we take a multi-faceted approach to this complex issue;  we work to educate communities and healthcare providers on appropriate medicine use and prescribing, we comply closely with all relevant federal and state regulations regarding these medicines, and, through our R&D pipeline, we are developing non-opioid treatments that have the potential to bring relief to patients in chronic pain," the company said.

Representatives for the other parties didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment late Monday.

Miami is represented by its city attorney, Victoria Méndez, as well as Julie Braman Kane and Lewis S. Eidson of Colson Hicks Eidson, Laura Singer and Sara Aguiñiga of Motley Rice LLC, Dan Gelber of Gelber Schachter & Greenberg PA, J.R. Whaley of Whaley Law Firm, Thomas L. Young, James W. Cusack and Julio J. Ayala.

Counsel information for the defendants couldn’t be immediately determined.

The case is The City of Miami v. Purdue Pharma LP et al., in the Circuit Court of the 11th Judicial Circuit in and for Miami-Dade County, Florida. Case number information couldn’t be immediately determined.

--Additional reporting by Carolina Bolado, Diana Novak Jones and Adam Lidgett. Editing by Alanna Weissman.