FLORENCE — The Pinal County Attorney’s Office has filed a lawsuit in state court against opioid manufacturers, distributors, prescribers and dispensers.
“The county is seeking a return of taxpayer dollars lost as a result of the opioid crisis and other relief to support the residents of Pinal,” County Attorney Kent Volkmer said.
Volkmer said the county filed a 124-page complaint against those who made, distributed, prescribed and dispensed opioids. Doctors and pharmacies are not exempt from this lawsuit.
“It is in response to the opioid crisis that our county is facing. It names the defendants — those who shoved that poison down the throats of our residents. There are at least 20 and closer to 30 defendants that we have named,” Volkmer said.
Apache and La Paz counties have also filed similar lawsuits in their county Superior Courts.
Pinal County has retained, at no expense to the county or its taxpayers, a coalition of law firms to prosecute this action on its behalf. The litigation will be led locally by the Arizona firm of Fennemore Craig and lead trial counsel will be the litigation law firm of Theodora Oringher PC of Costa Mesa, California.
“If we were to file it in federal court, we would get removed to the multidistrict litigation in Cleveland, Ohio,” Volkmer said. “I don’t believe that a jury in Cleveland, Ohio, or a judge sitting in Cleveland, is in the best situation to judge the impact that the opioids have had on Pinal County residents. We believe that a Pinal County jury, with the assistance of a Pinal County judge, sit in the best position to make the determination of what impact opioids have had and what the appropriate consequences are for those who force-fed those to our residents should be.”
The filing alleges the following:
- Each of the defendants engaged in an industry-wide effort to downplay the dangerous and deadly potential effects of the misuse of prescription opioids. Simply put, these defendants put their desire for profits above the health and wellbeing of the people of Pinal County. The county and its citizens have paid dearly as a result.
- The manufacturer defendants engaged in a scheme designed to increase the number of opioid prescriptions written across the state of Arizona, specifically in Pinal County. The defendants’ scheme was particularly well-suited to Pinal County because it is home to a multitude of economically and medically vulnerable populations that defendants knew were uniquely predisposed to opioid addiction, including the elderly.
- These defendants succeeded in dramatically increasing the number of opioid prescriptions in Pinal County by (1) concealing the truth about the risk of addiction and death associated with long-term use of their products, and (2) pressuring their respective sales forces to deceive (and bribe) local physicians and other prescribers to flood Arizona — and Pinal County — with far more opioid prescriptions than were medically necessary.
- The distributor defendants shipped prescription opioids throughout the country, including to addresses in Pinal County. Rather than meet their obligations under Arizona law to report suspicious orders of opioids, these defendants willfully ignored impossibly large shipments of opioid into the county and across Arizona. They failed to report suspicious shipments despite being under clear statutory and common law obligations to do so, and in contravention of their own internal policies and procedures. The distributor defendants’ breaches of their respective reporting obligations were willful, motivated by their desire to maximize profits and were committed without consideration of the cost to Pinal County or its citizens.
- The prescriber defendants manipulated their patients and facilitated the manufacturer and distributor defendants’ scheme by passing out opioid discount cards to vulnerable patients, increasing patients’ opioid dosages without regard for the serious health risks and/or improperly prescribing opioids in violation of applicable Arizona laws and regulations.
- The pharmacy defendants enabled the manufacturer and distributor defendants’ scheme by improperly compounding, dispensing, selling, possessing and/or maintaining opioids in violation of applicable Arizona laws and regulations.
Volkmer said 20 years ago there was a push of opioids across the nation to treat pain as the “fifth-vital sign.”
“All the doctors were then presented with all of the research saying ‘there is no addictive quantity whatsoever to opioids and you have the ability to take chronic pain away from people with no side effects and not to do that is malpractice.’ That’s what was pushed upon all these doctors in the 1990s,” Volkmer said, adding that through the years research proved the drug companies were wrong and opioids were incredibly addictive.
“In fact, it doesn’t take but a few days of opioid use and a person can develop a medical addiction. These bad actors did everything they could to suppress that information. It was all done to make sure they could line their pockets. This was done as a way to make money,” he said.
The drug manufacturers and distributors even gave gifts to prescribing doctors to promote their opioid products.
“Trips to Hawaii, cruises and all these things. It was all done specifically to line their pockets. Our residents were the ones who were harmed,” Volkmer said.
With federal drug laws and procedures, Volkmer said the county knows exactly what kind of opioids were distributed to residents and in what quantities. This information was used in the 124-page complaint filed Wednesday.
“We have evidence that they intentionally poured disproportionate amounts of these drugs into our community. We have people who have lost their lives. We have drug addictions. The biggest issue we have in our community right now is substance addiction. Opioids are a huge partner in that crisis,” Volkmer said.
The lawsuit will take a while to work its way through the court system, probably around 18 months to two years, Volkmer said.
“We are not filing it with the intention simply to settle. Just paying money doesn’t fix all the ills and problems. Sometimes you want very specific action to be taken. Our intention is to fully litigate,” Volkmer said.