Bexar County has filed a lawsuit against opioid drug manufacturers and distributors that it says are responsible for “causing and contributing” to an addiction epidemic that has plagued San Antonio and the county, whose residents die of overdoses at the third-highest rate in the state.
The suit, filed Thursday in state district court, follows the commissioners’ decision in October to pursue litigation against a long list of companies, including Purdue Pharma, the maker of the synthetic opioid OxyContin.
A pair of local firms, Phipps Anderson Deacon LLP and Watts Guerra LLP, are bringing the lawsuit on the county’s behalf.
Charges in the lawsuit include public nuisance, fraud, misrepresentation, various forms of negligence, unjust enrichment, civil conspiracy and violations of the Deceptive Trade Practices and Texas Controlled Substances acts.
“They defrauded doctors, telling them that opioids were not addictive, that you could prescribe as much as you want and didn’t have to worry about causing these long-term problems,” Martin J. Phipps, the lead attorney in the suit, said at a Wednesday morning news conference. “And then the other thing they did, which makes it so significant to us, is they focused on our military.”
Phipps then held up a book, “Exit Wounds: A Survival Guide to Pain Management for Returning Veterans and their Families,” and said the book — which was distributed to members of the military — contained claims that “opioids would save their lives, would help them with the pain and tell them it wasn’t addictive.”
The lawsuit claims a group of companies “consciously created a climate in which opioids, despite their danger and addictiveness, are widely available. The result is the worst drug-overdose epidemic in our nation’s history.” Those companies “created the opioid epidemic by conspiring to push their dangerous products onto vulnerable Americans, leaving families and local governments to clean up the damage,” the lawsuit reads.
Phipps said he expects the case to go to trial in about two years. Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson, a Republican, is “helping” on the case, he said.
John Parker, senior vice president of Healthcare Distribution Alliance, a national organization representing pharmaceutical distributors, called the “misuse and abuse” of prescription opioids a “complex public health challenge that requires a collaborative and systemic response that engages all stakeholders.”
“Given our role, the idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated,” the statement from Parker said. “Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation.”
The opioid epidemic has hit Bexar County particularly hard: the county reported a fatality rate in 2015 of 5.7 overdoses per 100,000 residents, higher than all but two other Texas counties. Opioid-linked deaths reached a peak in 2011 with 145 deaths, and after three down years, the death toll resurged in 2015 with 108 overdose deaths.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said in an interview that the decision to file individually and at the state level, instead of joining a broader federal suit, would allow the county to directly receive money from any settlement or damages awarded rather than see it pass through several entities.
Wolff referred to Texas’ lawsuit against the tobacco industry, which in 1998 resulted in a $14 billion settlement, some of which went to an endowment that funds children’s health care and cancer research. Similarly, Bexar County would put any payments resulting from its suit toward opioid-related treatment and research programs.
“If we do prevail, that’s exactly where the money is going,” Wolff said. “We don’t have enough treatment programs. We’re always stretching to enlarge those, all of our diversion programs, and our treatment within the (county) jail itself is extremely expensive.”
In October, the commissioners stipulated through a provision introduced by Commissioner Kevin Wolff that the county itself could not spend any payments from the suit in non-opioid-related areas. The attorneys would also receive compensation through settlement or damage money, meaning their payment is contingent on a favorable result to the county.
In August, shortly before commissioners authorized the lawsuit, San Antonio and Bexar County formed a task force to combat opioid addiction, which has since received millions of dollars in federal grant money for community education and procuring the overdose-reversal drug Naloxone.
“This treatment fund that’s going to come from this lawsuit will help us identify and bridge the gaps in our treatment here in Bexar County, and believe me, there are many,” said T.J. Mayes, Wolff’s chief of staff and a key player on the task force. “We want parents to know if you have excess opioids in your medicine cabinet, there’s a proper way to dispose of them, and that is not to flush them down the toilet. And it’s not to leave them in your medicine cabinet indefinitely.”
The county’s announcement comes one day after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed suit against Purdue Pharma in state district court in Travis County. The two suits are unrelated, but like Bexar County’s, Paxton’s lawsuit alleges Purdue violated the state’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
Purdue Phrama faces escalating litigation with several state attorneys general claiming the company violated consumer protection laws by misrepresenting the risks and benefits of opioids.
Other manufacturers named in Bexar County’s suit include Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Endo Health Solutions, Allergan, Cephalon and Janssen Pharmaceuticals. The lawsuit also targets distributors McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, among others.
Many of those companies face numerous lawsuits from other counties, cities and states around the U.S.