Tacoma sues opioid manufacturers for ‘harms they have inflicted on the community’

The City of Tacoma is suing three drug companies that make opioids, including the manufacturer of OxyContin, the drug pictured here. This 2013 photo shows OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vermont. Toby Talbot AP
The City of Tacoma is suing three drug companies that make opioids, including the manufacturer of OxyContin, the drug pictured here. This 2013 photo shows OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vermont. Toby Talbot AP

The City of Tacoma is suing three manufacturers of prescription opioids, alleging the companies’ actions have fueled the city’s homelessness crisis, strained police resources and caused the city’s health insurance costs to skyrocket.

City Manager Elizabeth Pauli said the city is joining other state and local governments in “seeking to hold opioid manufacturers liable for the harms they have inflicted on the community, and the financial burden their product has caused taxpayers.”

“We will vigorously pursue these claims and are exploring all of our available options at this time as we work to protect our community members from the harm caused by the companies that put their profits ahead of our community’s safety,” Pauli said in a news release.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, targets Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin; Endo Pharmaceuticals, the maker of Percocet; and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson. Janssen makes patches that release the pain killer fentanyl.

The lawsuit accuses the companies of falsely claiming the risk of becoming addicted to opioids was low, while ignoring the risks of long-term use.

William Foster, a spokesman for Janssen, said Wednesday that company leaders believe the lawsuit’s claims “are both legally and factually unfounded.”

“Janssen has acted responsibly and in the best interests of patients and physicians with regard to these medicines, which are FDA-approved and carry FDA-mandated warnings about possible risks on every product label,” Foster wrote in an email, referring to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

According to the suit, the companies’ actions have forced Tacoma officials to spend “significant resources” on social-service programs to combat homelessness and addiction, as well as diverting police to fight drug trafficking. The lawsuit also cites how in recent years, Tacoma has been responding to more emergency drug-overdose calls.

The city wants the court to rule that the opioid makers have been negligent and acted as a public nuisance, while unjustly enriching themselves at the city’s expense.

“Despite minimal or arguably no scientific evidence indicating that opioids offer any long-term benefit in treating chronic pain, defendants misleadingly advertised their opioids as a panacea and pushed hundreds of millions of pills into the marketplace for consumption, fueling a crisis of unprecedented levels,” the lawsuit states.

Purdue Pharma said in an emailed statement that company officials “vigorously deny the allegations” and “share public officials’ concerns about the opioid crisis.”

Purdue’s leaders “are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions,” the statement said.

“OxyContin accounts for less than 2% of the opioid analgesic prescription market nationally, but we are an industry leader in the development of abuse-deterrent technology, advocating for the use of prescription drug-monitoring programs and supporting access to Naloxone — all important components for combating the opioid crisis,” the company said.

Nalaxone, also known as Narcan, is a drug that can be used to reverse an opioid overdose. According to the city’s lawsuit, the Tacoma Fire Department has seen a 50-percent increase in the need for Nalaxone in the past few years. The lawsuit says the Tacoma Fire Department administered 153 doses of Nalaxone to people who had overdosed in 2016, up from 102 doses in 2013.

City officials are seeking damages of three times the amount of their actual costs, as permitted under the state’s Consumer Protection Act and the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.

David Ko, one of the lead attorneys working on the city’s case, said the length of time the opioid manufacturers have been misleading the public, combined with the myriad costs their products have foisted on local communities, help give Tacoma a strong case.

“In very general terms, this was not just a misrepresentation here and a misrepresentation there,” said Ko, who works for the Seattle law firm Keller Rohrback. “This was a well-orchestrated, sophisticated scheme over the course of the last 20 years to really deceive doctors, patients and really the entire public about the safety and efficacy of opioids, while simultaneously minimizing the risk associated with consuming them.”

Tacoma isn’t the first government to target opioid makers in court.

Ko said about 30 state and local jurisdictions throughout the nation have filed similar cases against drug manufacturers. Those include the city of Everett and the state of Ohio.

All of those cases have been filed recently, so they are still moving through the court system, Ko said.

Endo, the third company named as a defendant in Tacoma’s lawsuit, said in an emailed statement its policy is to not comment on pending litigation, but “our top priorities include patient safety.”

“We share in the FDA’s goal of appropriately supporting the needs of patients with chronic pain, while preventing misuse and diversion of opioid products,” the company said.

 

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1