St. Martinville is joining other Louisiana jurisdictions in suing drug manufacturers and distributors in response to the national opioid epidemic, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
The city filed suit this month in Lafayette federal court, and it will likely join nearly 1,300 other plaintiffs in multi-district litigation unfolding in Ohio. Hundreds of local government entities are among the plaintiffs, which also include hospitals and other organizations.
St. Martin Parish is already part of the consolidated lawsuit in Ohio, and City Councilman Mike Fuselier persuaded his council colleagues to follow the parish’s lead earlier this year.
“There are so many people I personally know who are dealing with this stuff,” Fuselier said. “It just made me angry that these people are making multiple billions of dollars off the backs of people that are literally dying.”
The St. Martinville lawsuit is similar to those that other jurisdictions have filed. Manufacturers marketed the drugs to treat long-term chronic pain, while intentionally and falsely downplaying any danger of addiction, the lawsuit alleges. Distributors are accused of ignoring increasingly large volumes of addictive drugs being sent to pharmacies, thus failing to report “suspicious orders” to state and federal authorities.
In addition to the toll on those who suffer addiction, the opioid epidemic has been costly to state and local governments, in the fields of law enforcement, emergency response and healthcare, to name a few.
“It’s been a financial strain on these local jurisdictions, especially local jurisdictions in rural parts of the country that are now faced with trying to be both the sheriff and the mental health provider for a county,” said Michael Morton, a deputy counsel for the Nevada legislature who has written about the opioid litigation for the American Bar Association.
Efforts to quantify these costs are scattered, but the American Enterprise Institute in March published estimates of the per-capita cost of the crisis to states in 2015. Louisiana ranked 39th in that report, but the study year marked the beginning of a 54 percent spike in opioid-related deaths in the state, according to the Department of Health.
Also in 2015, the number of opioid prescriptions written in Louisiana exceeded the number of residents, for a per-capita prescription rate nearly 50 percent higher than the national average, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
St. Martinville is in the early stages of calculating police overtime and other costs related specifically to opioid addiction, said Allan Durand, the city attorney. These city-level claims are harder to calculate than, for example, the cost of caring for additional prisoners in a parish jail or additional Medicaid costs to the state, Durand noted.
“It’s not the kind of statistic we would keep in normal bookkeeping,” Durand said. “We don’t have a column on the income statement for opioid addiction costs.”
The seven law firms working on the St. Martinville case are working on contingency, meaning their only payment will be a percentage of any settlement the city receives.
Donaldsonville, Ascension Parish and the Richland Parish Sheriff’s Office also filed suit this month. New Orleans and LaSalle Parish have filed in the last three months. These lawsuits could join the multi-district proceedings in Ohio, or the plaintiffs could choose to go it alone.
Morton said he expects the opioid litigation will likely take at least as long as the tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s to resolve. The tobacco and opioid claims have drawn comparisons with the allegations of deceptive marketing, but Morton said there is a key difference that could complicate the cases.
“I think there will be an argument these two things are not comparable, because there are absolutely no benefits to tobacco use, whereas there are some benefits — marginal benefits, depending on who is making the argument — for pain management medication,” Morton said.
Distributors say they report every opioid order to the Drug Enforcement Administration, despite allegations to the contrary. Furthermore, holding distributors accountable for the increasing number of opioid prescriptions “defies commons sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated,” John Parker, a Healthcare Distribution Alliance senior vice president, said in a statement.
“Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation,” Parker said.
Whatever the merits of the claims, Durand said, any future settlement isn’t likely to come close to the real costs of the crisis. Defendants might further limit what they pay by seeking bankruptcy protection, he said.
“I told our city council, don’t wait standing up and don’t spend the money before it comes,” Durand said.