Judge dismisses opioid crisis lawsuits against drugmakers

January 09, 2019 - 3:43 pm
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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A Connecticut judge has dismissed lawsuits against Purdue Pharma and two dozen other drug companies brought by 37 cities and towns in the state, which blame them for the opioid crisis and seek to recoup millions of dollars spent on emergency response and other services.

Judge Thomas Moukawsher in Hartford Superior Court ruled Tuesday that the lawsuits were not allowed because they were not government enforcement actions, such as those filed under consumer protection and public health laws. Instead, the judge said the lawsuits were filed as "ordinary civil cases" seeking money damages for the "indirect harm" from the opioid crisis.

"Their lawsuits can't survive without proof that the people they are suing directly caused them the financial losses they seek to recoup," Moukawsher wrote. "This puts the cities in the same position in claiming money as the brothers, sisters, friends, neighbors, and co-workers of addicts who say they have also indirectly suffered losses by the opioid crisis. That is to say — under long-established law — they have no claims at all."

Lawyers for several cities and towns said they were still reviewing the judge's ruling Wednesday and appeals are being considered. Bridgeport, New Haven and Waterbury are among the plaintiffs.

"I don't think he reached the correct decision," said New York lawyer Judith Scolnick, who is representing New Haven and New Britain. "It's disappointing. We're considering every option."

The ruling is believed to be the first to dismiss government lawsuits in recent rounds of litigation against opioid manufacturers. Last month, a federal judge in Ohio overseeing more than 1,400 lawsuits against drugmakers by local governments and other groups rejected requests by the companies to dismiss the claims.

Purdue Pharma, the Stamford, Connecticut-based maker of the opioid painkiller OxyContin, said in a statement Wednesday that Moukawsher made the right decision.

"We commend the judge for applying the law and concluding that opioid manufacturers cannot be legally responsible to cities for the indirect harms they claim they experienced as a result of the opioid crisis," the statement said. "We share these communities' concerns about the opioid crisis, and we remain committed to working collaboratively, bringing meaningful solutions forward to help address this public health challenge."

Like other drugmakers, Purdue Pharma has denied allegations in lawsuits that it used deceptive marketing to boost sales of its opioid painkiller, deceiving patients and doctors about the risks of opioids. Manufacturers are being blamed for helping fuel addiction and opioid overdose deaths.

About 47,600 Americans died from drug overdoses involving opioids in 2017, a toll that has been rising for two decades, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Local, state and federal governments say they have been forced to pay for opioid addicts' social and medical needs, including emergency response services, doses of overdose-reversal drugs and medical care for government employees.

"As a result of Defendants' false and misleading marketing," one of the Connecticut lawsuits said, "the United States in general, and Connecticut municipalities in particular, are now experiencing an opioid-fueled public health epidemic of crisis proportions that is swamping the public health, safety, and administrative infrastructures of Connecticut municipalities."

Tuesday's dismissal does not apply to a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma filed recently by the state of Connecticut in connection with the opioid crisis.

Purdue Pharma has faced legal challenges before. The company, along with three of its executives, pleaded guilty in 2007 to federal charges and was ordered to pay more than $600 million in fines related to what was called intentional misrepresentations as to the addictiveness of OxyContin.

The plea deal came only two days after the company agreed to pay $19.5 million to 26 states and the District of Columbia to settle complaints that it encouraged doctors to overprescribe OxyContin. The company did not admit wrongdoing in that settlement.

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