Hundreds of overdose victims in Erie County are dead because major pharmaceutical companies misled doctors and patients into believing that highly addictive, prescription painkillers were safe, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said.
So Erie County is suing the companies in State Supreme Court.
The suit, filed on Wednesday, also accuses four physicians of being paid by drug makers to promote their prescription painkillers and mislead other physicians regarding the drugs' addictive properties.
"We believe the pharmaceutical companies and those doctors are the ones who should be held responsible," Poloncarz said. "They have created a whole nation of addicts by stating publicly that these drugs were not addictive and were quite safe, when we knew they were very addictive and dangerous."
The lawsuit names 11 major drug manufacturers and related companies for what county leaders call the worst form of false advertising – the fatal kind.
Erie County is not the first plaintiff to file such a lawsuit, though it is among the first in the state to do so outside of New York City. Suffolk County on Long Island has also filed a similar suit and several other New York counties are expected to file their own.
Erie County Attorney Michael Siragusa said he has been working with an outside law firm since November to craft a suit holding drug manufacturers accountable for the painful toll the opioid and heroin epidemic has had on the region. More than 320 local deaths last year have been tied to opioid-related drug overdoses.
The lawsuit takes primary aim against pharmaceutical companies that make promote, market and distribute opioid-based drugs such as OxyContin and Percocet and generics such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. In its complaint, the county alleges drug makers and drug promoters violated state laws through deception, false advertising, fraud and unjust enrichment among other claims.
"I would say the vast majority who've died in the last few years are those who started with a legal prescription," Poloncarz said.
The county seeks unspecified damages for the tens of millions of dollars that Erie County, law enforcement and other emergency responders have incurred fighting the opioid-related public health crisis, he said. Many addicts use painkillers for legitimate medical reasons, then abuse them and move to street drugs because of their growing drug dependency and addiction.
"We've had to expend lots of money to deal with the opiate epidemic as a county and as a community, and we should be reimbursed," Poloncarz said.
The lawsuit would not cost the county money out of pocket because it's working on a contingency fee basis with the law firm of Simmons, Hanly & Conroy, a national firm with six offices across the country including New York City, county officials said. The firm would receive a cut of between 10 percent and 40 percent of any settlement agreement or awarded damages that may result from the lawsuit, depending on the stage at which the suit is resolved.
Paul J. Hanly Jr. is the partner heading up Erie County's suit. He's flying from New York City to attend a press conference announcing the suit Thursday.
[Read: The 75-page suit filed in State Supreme Court: Erie v. Purdue Complaint]
Among the companies being sued are those related to, or have a major ownership stake in, Purdue Pharma, Janssen Pharmaceuticals and Endo Pharmaceuticals.
From 2003 through 2007, Simmons, Hanly & Conroy represented 5,000 individual plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against Purdue Pharma regarding the use of opioid drugs, according to the county. That case resulted in a $75 million settlement for the plaintiffs. The U.S. Department of Justice subsequently subpoenaed the discovery obtained in that case by the Simmons law firm and used it to obtain a $692 million criminal penalty against Purdue.