PEABODY — The city has filed a public nuisance lawsuit against pharmaceutical drug makers and wholesale distributors that it says “made the opioid epidemic possible,” Mayor Ted Bettencourt’s office announced Thursday.

The city has joined an effort by the Massachusetts Opioid Litigation Attorneys, which represents nearly 100 other communities in Massachusetts, including several on the North Shore. The suit seeks to recoup costs and damages from the toll the opioid epidemic has taken on communities, such as the rising costs for treatment, education and law enforcement.

“Our community will do everything in our power to stop this crisis from further destroying people’s lives,” Bettencourt said in a statement. “We must fight this epidemic in the streets and in the courtroom. Not until we address the sources that are fueling this problem and we force drug makers and distributors to follow the law, will we be able to end this unconscionable problem.”

Peabody filed the lawsuit against five of the largest makers of prescription opioids and their related companies and three of the nation’s largest wholesale drug distributors.

“The suit alleges that the manufacturing companies pushed highly addictive, dangerous opioids, falsely representing to doctors that patients would only rarely succumb to drug addiction, while the distributors breached their legal duties to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders of prescription opioids,” the statement from the mayor’s office says. 

Peter Merrigan, a partner with Sweeney Merrigan Law, which is part of the consortium, said the opioid epidemic is “a pervasive problem that has dramatically increased” within the past five to 10 years. The lawsuits not only seek damages for hard economic costs, but money to try and fix the problem.

On the North Shore, Merrigan said Danvers, Beverly, North Andover and Lynn are among cities and towns that have joined the effort. Attorney Tom McEnaney of KP Law, another firm involved in this litigation effort, said Georgetown, Swampscott, Salisbury and Amesbury are also involved.

McEnaney said the nature of all the complaints are the same, but what is different is the impact of the crisis from community to community, so the damages awarded to each will be different.

Salem has joined a different consortium that includes the law firm Scott + Scott to sue opioid drug makers and distributors, said Assistant City Solicitor Victoria Caldwell. Worcester and Haverhill are also part of this similar but separate effort, she said. The difference, she said, is the fee structure and the fact this consortium is filing in state court first. There are no out-of-pocket costs to the city to file, she said.

The crisis

The opioid crisis in Peabody shows no signs of abating even as the Massachusetts Department of Public Health says confirmed and suspected opioid overdose deaths last year — 2,069 — were down 4 percent from the year before.

In Peabody in 2016 and 2017, there were 163 overdoses in each of those years, said Health Director Sharon Cameron, in a presentation to the City Council’s Committee on Drug Education and Awareness last month.

“Our numbers for the first quarter of 2018 are on track to show a higher number,” Cameron told the council, “29 percent higher than the first quarters of 2016 and 2017, so that is certainly something that concerns us.”

Cameron also told councilors there was a significant increase in the number of fatal overdoses of Peabody residents last year, both in the city and outside. There were 23 residents who died of an overdose in 2017, compared to about 11 each in 2015 and 2016.

The toll

The city does not have a cost estimate of the opioid epidemic to Peabody, yet, Bettencourt said.

But responding to overdoses can be costly. The city has a three-tiered emergency response system, which means police, fire and ambulance personnel are dispatched to such calls. The city has also incurred costs for specialized equipment and training, including costs associated with supplying and training first responders on the opioid overdose reversal drug, Narcan.

Narcan saves lives, Bettencourt said.

“No question about it,” he said, “but it comes at a significant cost.”

Bettencourt, an attorney by profession, said he did his due diligence and heard from others before taking this legal step.

“I believe it’s the right thing for our community,” he said.

The complaint was filed in federal court and was consolidated with the multi-district litigation in the Northern District of Ohio on July 24. In the event settlements cannot be reached, trials are expected to start in the spring of 2019.

The lawsuit is being pursued on a contingency fee basis, meaning the city will not incur legal fees unless there is a successful outcome.

Since there was no cost to file the lawsuit, the mayor said he did not have to seek City Council approval.

There have been other efforts to hold drug makers accountable.

In June, state Attorney General Maura Healey’s office sued OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma along with current and former executives and members of the private company’s board.

In April, as Danvers was mulling joining the effort, the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, a national trade association that represents drug distributors, including the three that dominate the market, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson, supplied a statement from senior vice president at HDA, John Parker.

“Given our role,” Parker said, “the idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated. Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation.”

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.

 

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