Howard County this week will take its first steps toward filing a lawsuit against drug companies that make powerful painkillers that have been linked to tens of thousands of overdose deaths nationwide.
The county’s Office of Law will start interviewing law firms as part of a plan to seek monetary damages related to the “tremendous amount of resources that local jurisdictions have had to devote to the [opioid] crisis,” county spokeswoman Deidre McCabe said.
Decisions on which manufacturing companies the county will sue, as well as the amount of money the county is seeking, won’t be made until a firm has been selected, according to McCabe. The firm will also determine the court in which to pursue the county’s case; McCabe said it could be a state circuit court.
The county continues its battle against opioid overdoses, with 18 fatal and non-fatal overdoses in the county last month, compared to 10 in January 2017, according to police. In 2017, there were 228 fatal and non-fatal overdoses.
A representative for the national Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America said the trade association does not comment on legal matters related to individual lawsuits, but that the association is “deeply committed” to combating the national opioid crisis.
Kathleen Hoke, a law professor at University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law and director of the Legal Resource Center for Public Health Policy, said that as more jurisdictions file sue manufacturers, common claims fall under consumer-protection law, including fraudulent misrepresentation from manufacturers to consumers.
“The theme being in some instances directly manipulating providers and patients into believing the drug would do things that it wouldn’t do, and more importantly not disclosing the potential and significant negative consequences of starting to use the drugs at all,” she said.
Hoke said some jurisdictions may also claim the opioid crisis has caused a public nuisance, but that this could be a tougher legal claim to uphold in court.
The next step for cases across the country, Hoke said, is the discovery phase, during which law firms will begin researching what manufacturers knew about the risks behind opioids and what they failed to disclose to the public.
“Preliminarily there is certainly sufficient evidence to bring these claims,” Hoke said. “The industry will fight this very hard.”
Hoke said it’s possible that counties could choose to file a class-action suit, consolidating individual lawsuits.
Some jurisdictions, including Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City, have also sued individual doctors ifor acting as “pill mills” to push large amounts of drugs onto consumers.
It’s too early in the litigation process, Hoke said, to know how many of the lawsuits across the country will go to trial. She said that many of the jurisdictions are looking to recoup costs including, emergency response to overdoses, supplies of the lifesaving drug Naloxone and substance abuse counseling.
“The local governments are going to stay in the game until they have to get out [because of dismissal] or they have a good reason to get because they’ve reached a settlement,” she said.
It’s unclear, if Howard County files a lawsuit, who would pay the attorneys and other costs.