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Anne Arundel announces suit against opioid manufacturers, doctors

FILE - This Feb. 19, 2013 file photo shows OxyContin (oxycodone) pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

FILE – This Feb. 19, 2013 file photo shows OxyContin (oxycodone) pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

Anne Arundel County filed suit Thursday against a group of opioid manufacturers, distributors and local doctors with claims ranging from Maryland Consumer Protection Act violations to unjust enrichment.

The lawsuit comes four months after the county announced it was contemplating such an action and retained Motley Rice LLC, a national law firm with experience in this area of litigation, to pursue potential claims. The county is the first jurisdiction in Maryland to file such a suit, according to a news release from County Executive Steve Schuh.

Named defendants include manufacturers Purdue Pharma Inc., Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc., Johnson & Johnson, Insys Therapeutics Inc. and Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc.. Local physicians William Tham, Kofi Shaw-Taylor, Jackie Syme and Lawrence Vidaver as well as their practices are also named.

“Misleading and deceptive marketing practices and unethical prescribing practices have accelerated the opioid addiction epidemic in Anne Arundel County,” Schuh said in a statement. “Those who have had a hand in this epidemic must be held accountable.”

The complaint, which is more than 150 pages, accuses the defendants of helping to “cultivate a narrative that pain was under-treated and pain treatment should be a higher priority for health care providers” and beginning to promote opioids as safe and effective for long-term use starting in the 1990s.

The medical community had previously recognized the dangers of opioids and used them “cautiously and sparingly,” according to the complaint, but Purdue developed OxyContin in the mid-1990s and “needed to change the perception of opioids to permit and encourage the use of opioids long-term for widespread chronic conditions.”

Purdue Pharma, in a statement Thursday, said it is “deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis” and wants to be part of the solution.

“We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense,” the statement said in part.

A spokesperson for Teva similarly said the company “is committed to the appropriate use of opioid medicines (and) recognize the critical public health issues impacting communities across the U.S.”

Defendant Endo Health Solutions Inc. has ceased opioid promotion and eliminated its product sales team in the last year, according to a spokesperson, as well as withdrew Opana ER, an opioid pain medication, from the market after a U.S. Food and Drug Administration request. The company denies the allegations contained in the lawsuit.

Janssen called the allegations “both legally and factually unfounded” in a statement.

Distributor AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp. “is dedicated to doing (its) part as a distributor to mitigate the diversion of these drugs without interfering with clinical decisions made by doctors,” according to a statement.

A second named distributor, Cardinal Health Inc., also expressed a dedication to solving the “complex national public health crisis” but called the lawsuit misguided and said it will “do nothing to stem the crisis” in a statement.

Deceptive marketing

The lawsuit, filed in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, includes False Claims Act and Maryland Consumer Protection Act claims as well as public nuisance, fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment, and negligence and gross negligence.

“When you get right down to it, a lot of it is very basic Maryland Consumer Protection law and negligence law but where it is useful to have the expertise of Motley Rice is the discovery aspect of it is overwhelming and they are fully immersed in it already,” said Anne Arundel County Attorney Nancy McCutchan Duden. “They are prepared to represent us aggressively.”

Because the case involves state law claims and there is not complete diversity among the defendants, it will be more difficult for the defendants to argue for removal to federal court, she added.

“We think it’s very important to stay in state court,” Duden said. “We think that’s where it belongs.”

The lawsuit claims the opioid manufacturers spent hundreds of millions on promotional activities and materials the downplayed the risk of addiction and overstate the benefits of their products. Doctors were told in sales calls, advertisements and in educational seminars they could screen patients for addiction and improve function and quality of life for chronic pain sufferers.

“Defendants’ deceptive marketing created a cadre of doctors who looked for pain and treated it with opioids, which created an even broader cohort of patients who expected and required opioids,” the complaint states. “This laid the groundwork for today’s epidemic of opioid addiction, injury, and death.”

Distributors, meanwhile, supplied opioids in quantities they should have known exceeded any legitimate market for the area and ignored suspicious orders contrary to state law requiring them to act.

As of Dec. 7, Anne Arundel County had seen 142 fatal opioid-related overdoses in 2017, according to the complaint. The Anne Arundel County Department of Health spent more than $13 million on opioid measures in fiscal year 2016.

Duden said she hopes citizens see the lawsuit as an indication that the county is doing to do everything it can to protect them.

“We, as every jurisdiction in this country right now, are trying to do everything we can from every angle,” she said.

The case is Anne Arundel County, Maryland v. Purdue Pharma L.P., et al.

Motley Rice filed similar lawsuits in Chicago and Santa Clara County, California in 2014. They alleged five pharmaceutical companies had engaged in deceptive marketing about opioids and in May 2017, Santa Clara County settled with several defendants for $1.6 million.

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