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More counties, cities join massive opioid consumer protection litigation

The local governments in Maryland suing opioid manufacturers and distributors nearly doubled Monday when a group of counties and cities filed a joint lawsuit, joining a growing contingent in the state seeking a seat at the table of in nationwide federal litigation.

Caroline, Frederick, Garrett, Harford and Talbot counties, as well as the cities of Bowie, Frederick, Westminster and Rockville, filed suit this week. Six counties and four cities, including Baltimore, has already filed individual lawsuits between January and May.

The newest plaintiffs chose to file a single suit for efficiency, according to Aelish Baig, a San Francisco-based attorney whose firm is representing the newest plaintiffs and some of the older ones.

“They could have done it separately or they could have done it together,” said Baig, of Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP. “The allegations are similar for many of the plaintiffs, at least the allegations as it relates to the defendants.”

The lawsuits all generally allege manufacturers and distributors of drugs such as OxyContin knowingly misled doctors and consumers about the addictive quality of prescription opioids and manufactured a market by overstating their benefits for chronic pain treatment.

“Borrowing from the tobacco industry’s playbook, the Manufacturing Defendants employed ingenious marketing strategies, as detailed further herein, designed to ‘reeducate’ the public and prescribers,” the latest complaint states. “They deliberately conceived these strategies to create, and in fact did create, an entirely new ‘health care’ narrative – one in which opioids are considered safe and effective for long-term use, and pain is aggressively treated at all costs.”

The goal was to “normalize aggressive prescribing of opioids for chronic pain” and involved misleading doctors and patients, according to the suit, which alleges violations of the Maryland Consumer Protection Act and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

The defendant companies have denied the allegations in all of the lawsuits and stress their commitment to the appropriate use of their products and combating the opioid epidemic.

Baltimore city and Anne Arundel County successfully fought to have their cases stay in state court, but the remaining lawsuits were either filed in or removed to federal court, where they are part of multi-district litigation based in Ohio. There were nearly 900 jurisdictions from around the country involved in that litigation as of June 15, according to the MDL website.

The Maryland Office of the Attorney General is also considering a suit on behalf of the state and reviewing applications for special litigation counsel.

No matter where they file suit, plaintiffs are seeking injunctive relief in addition to monetary damages. Injunctions would seek to affect pharmaceutical companies’ behavior and marketing statements while any monetary awards would compensate local governments for money spent addressing the crisis.

Baig, whose firm is representing jurisdictions nationwide, said the defendants have filed motions to dismiss in the “track one” cases – those furthest along so far in the litigation process – and she expects there will be a ruling sometime this fall which could impact cases in Maryland and elsewhere.

“Some of those legal rulings that are made with respect to the bellwethers will provide guidance to the rest of the cases,” she said.

No trial dates have been scheduled for the Maryland cases.


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