Joining the state of Wyoming and 10 other municipalities and entities here, Green River on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against several companies who either produce or distribute opioids, alleging the corporations pushed the drugs using deceptive marketing practices while downplaying the significant risks associated with the class of medications.
The city follows in the footsteps of Rock Springs and Sweetwater County in filing its federal suit against companies like Purdue — the maker of OxyContin and the company broadly considered to be the center of the opioid crisis. Green River’s suit will likely follow the path of Wyoming’s other federal actions, meaning it will be transferred to an Ohio court — where some 2,000 lawsuits against the companies are being aggregated for workup.
The cities of Casper, Cheyenne and Riverton have all already filed suit against a similar list of companies, as have both the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. The state of Wyoming last year filed its own suit in state court against just Purdue.
In all, the Green River suit names more than a dozen companies, plus subsidiaries and companies acquired by other defendants. In addition to Purdue, other well-known defendants include Walmart and Walgreens, as well as Janssen Pharmaceuticals — which makes fentanyl — and Endo Health Solutions, which makes Percocet.
Purdue and the other companies have broadly denied any wrongdoing in the marketing and distribution of opioids. In a response to the state of Wyoming’s suit, Purdue wrote that the drugs were approved by federal regulators for use in chronic pain.
Messages sent to Green River’s two attorneys were not returned Thursday, nor was a voicemail left for Green River Mayor Pete Rust.
The Sweetwater County town’s lawsuit is similar to other opioid litigation, in that it accuses the companies of using deceptive practices to market the drugs to doctors and patients while downplaying and ignoring any risks.
“These pharmaceutical companies aggressively advertised to and persuaded doctors to prescribe highly addictive, dangerous opioids, turning patients into drug addicts for their own corporate profit,” the suit alleges, adding later that the companies “falsely and misleadingly: (1) downplayed the serious risk of addiction; (2) promoted the concept of ‘pseudoaddiction,’ claiming that signs of addiction should be treated with more opioids; (3) exaggerated the effectiveness of screening tools in preventing addiction,” among other alleged behavior.
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The suit claims that Green River now has a “public health crisis” as a result of the companies’ actions and that the city “faces skyrocketing opioid addiction and opioid-related overdoses and deaths as well as devastating social and economic consequences.”
The suit, citing amFAR — an AIDS research foundation that does opioid work as well — notes Wyoming has high rates of opioid prescriptions. According to amFAR’s website, Wyoming had nearly 65 opioid prescriptions per 100 people in 2017, more than the national rate of 58.7. Still, Wyoming’s overdose death rate from opioids that year was just under 12 people per 100,000 — about half the national rate.
The city seeks an unspecific amount of money to “recoup tax dollars” spent because of the alleged actions of the companies. It also asks the court to order the corporations “pay civil penalties, restitution, and any fees or costs permitted under law.”
As the number of lawsuits against the companies continues to mount in Wyoming and across the nation, talk of a settlement continues to swirl. A Yale Law School professor told the Baltimore Sun that a massive settlement is the likely outcome for Purdue and the other companies, as individual trials would take too long and bankrupt the companies.
Several attorneys and commentators have likened the sprawling litigation to the tobacco lawsuits of decades ago, though Jason Ochs — a Jackson attorney who is representing several of the Wyoming entities in the lawsuits — previously told the Star-Tribune that this opioid litigation is more complex.
In an email to the Star-Tribune earlier this month, Ochs said that depending on how some motions in front of the Ohio judge shake out, “resolution is very possible in 2020.” If the judge rules the other way, though, the litigation may take much longer to hash out.
Meanwhile, Purdue has publicly floated declaring bankruptcy as it braces for a wave of settlements and as the lawsuits against it continue to mount.