GRAND RAPIDS – The city of Lansing is suing 21 drug companies, distributors and retail pharmacies that it says helped fuel the national opioid epidemic, which, in turn, put an economic strain on the city as it was forced to address the problem.
The civil lawsuit, filed Tuesday morning in federal court in Grand Rapids, is one of a growing number filed by local governments nationwide against pharmaceutical companies.
Other Michigan cities and counties, including Detroit, Macomb County, Genesee County, Saginaw County, Grand Traverse County, Delta County, Chippewa County and Escanaba, joined Lansing Tuesday morning in filing suit against the drug companies.
“Lansing has been hampered by the tidal wave of opioids addiction that has swept through the nation forcing it to expend city resources combating the opioid epidemic and its cascading effects,” the outside attorneys hired by the city wrote in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges the drug manufacturers “aggressively over-promoted highly addictive, dangerous opioid products” and funded a campaign to convince doctors and the general public that opioids could safely be used as a daily treatment for chronic pain.
It also alleges that the companies misled the government, specifically, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, about the dangers of prescription painkillers.
“As patients throughout the country became addicted to opioids, manufacturers, distributors and retailers of opioids similarly became addicted to the immense profits associated with the widespread consumption of opioids. Motivated by their own bottom lines, these corporate actors looked the other way — or worse — as the epidemic unfolded,” the lawsuit states.
Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals Industries, Watson Laboratories, Inc., Cardinal Health, Inc. and Omnicare Distribution Center LLC are among the 21 named defendants.
Purdue Pharma responded to the lawsuit with a statement, which reads in part: “We are deeply troubled by the opioid crisis and we are dedicated to being part of the solution. … We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.”
Richard Ausness, an associate dean specializing in product liability at the University of Kentucky College of Law, said it can be challenging for the plaintiffs in such lawsuits to convince a court that drug companies are directly responsible.
That’s because there are “intervening players,” such as the doctors who prescribe the drugs and the people who use the drugs more frequently than prescribed, Ausness said.
If can be especially difficult for individual plaintiffs to prevail in personal injury lawsuits against drug companies, he added.
“I was surprised to find that those individuals almost always lost,” Ausness said. “Courts sort of felt they were responsible for their plight.”
Lawsuits filed by governments over economic losses seem to fare better.
“Governments have an advantage in a certain sense because harm is assessed on a collective level. They’re claiming harm to social systems” said Rebecca Haffajee, an attorney and an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. “Governments also have the potential to bring more resources to bear. When it’s one patient against a big pharmaceutical company, you can see how the resources might be stacked.”
Kentucky won $24 million, one of the largest opioid settlements awarded to a state, in 2015 after suing Purdue Pharma in 2007. The company did not admit fault.
It is rare for such lawsuits to go to trial.
“They’re looking for a quick settlement, partly because the legal claims are a bit iffy,” Ausness said. “The cities want their money, and they want it now. The drug companies are mostly able to write off the settlements as the cost of doing business.”
Lansing City Council voted in October to declare the opioid epidemic a public nuisance. The declaration was a step toward preparing to sue. The Council also authorized city attorney James Smiertka to retain outside legal counsel.
The city hired attorneys with the law firms Weitz & Luxenberg, Church Wyble and the Sam Bernsetin Law Firm on a contingency basis, meaning the city will not pay them until a monetary settlement is reached. If the city is awarded money, the attorneys will collect 30%.
“I am angry, I am disgusted and I am appalled at what we’ve seen from the opioid industry,” said Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “It is out of frustration and disgust that we take this measure.”
Any financial windfall from the lawsuit will go to the city’s general fund, the mayor said. It will not be earmarked specifically for opioid treatment or prevention.
Among other options for relief, the lawsuit does ask the companies to set up an “abatement fund” which would pay for programs to address the opioid crisis. Such a fund would be shared among the cities and counties who sued, Smiertka said.
The city’s lawsuit also asks the companies to report suspicious drugs orders, in compliance with the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Ingham County and East Lansing are planning opioid epidemic lawsuits of their own. Ingham County set a Jan. 4 deadline for proposals from law firms. East Lansing’s City Council plans to vote Tuesday night on whether to hire the same attorneys representing Lansing.
Michigan had the tenth-highest rate of per capita opioid usage among U.S. states in 2016, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.