UPDATE: Athens-Clarke County on Wesnesday became the fourth county in Georgia to file suit against opioid makers and distributors. Blasingame, Burch, Garrard & Ashley, the law firm representing Candler County, will also represent Athens-Clarke.
ORIGINAL STORY: A tiny Southeast Georgia county ravaged by the abuse of painkillers has filed suit against the pharmaceutical industry, saying the drug makers have fueled a costly opioid epidemic that's straining their budget.
Candler County, near Statesboro, is believed to be the third county in Georgia to file suit against opioid manufacturers and distributors, following in the footsteps of Fulton and DeKalb last year.
It won’t be the last. Jim Matthews, an attorney at the Athens-based law firm representing Candler, said he expects his firm to take on dozens of additional lawsuits in the coming week from counties and hospital systems across the state. Most are located in rural areas, where the epidemic has done the most harm, he said.
Candler County, where a quarter of the roughly 11,000 residents live in poverty according to census data, has been hit particularly hard. The county saw 169.7 opioid prescriptions per 100 people in 2016, according to the CDC. That ranks Candler as the county with the state’s fifth highest prescription rate.
Candler County attorney Kendall Gross said it’s not because local physicians are overprescribing.
“I would be willing to bet you that the overwhelming majority of people in Candler don’t have any opioid prescriptions at all,” he said. Instead, he points to “pill mills” as the culprit — clinics and doctors who dispense narcotics without a legitimate medical reason.
The epidemic, he said, has racked up a bill. There are costs associated with medical care for people who have become addicted, of course, but there are other expenses as well; Law enforcement has seen an increase in robberies and burglaries and the Department of Family and Child Services is left caring for children neglected by addicted parents. Now, the county is seeking more than $75,000 in damages for reimbursement of the public funds used to fight addiction.
The 176-page lawsuit accuses more than two dozens drug makers and distributors of misrepresenting the addictive risks of prescription opioids while fraudulently marketing the drugs as a cure for chronic pain. The cost, the suit said, has been an increase in opioid-related addictions and deaths.
“In connection with this scheme, each Manufacturer Defendant spent, and continues to spend, millions of dollars on promotional activities and materials that falsely deny or trivialize the risks of opioids while overstating the benefits of using them for chronic pain,” the suit reads.
The suit alleges these marketing campaigns targeted general practitioners and family doctors who lack the expertise and time to monitor high-risk opioid patients. It also accuses pharmaceutical companies of failing to halt and report suspicious orders of prescriptions opioids, which could potentially be redistributed through illegal networks.
Matthews, the attorney representing the county, said Candler and the other counties will join a larger body of plaintiffs nationwide in suing the drug companies.
“We thought it best to join other law firms nationally because we’re all going to have to team up against the defendants,” he said. The defendants in the suit are some of the biggest names in the pharmaceutical industry — major manufacturers like Purdue Pharma, which produces OxyContin, and Endo Pharmaceuticals, which produces Percocet. But Matthews said he isn’t daunted.
“Sure, they have unlimited resources, which is another reason for us to band together in court with other law firms so that we also have resources,” he said.
Matthews said that although the case could drag on for up to three or four years, he believes the judge is more interested in settling within the year than presiding over a drawn-out legal battle. But even if the case does last months or years, that could work in the plaintiffs’ favor.
“The longer it drags on, the more evidence could come out and the more plaintiffs may file,” he said.
The defendants include:
Teva Pharmaceutical Industries
Teva Pharmaceuticals USA
Johnson & Johnson
Endo Health Solutions
AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation