Walworth County has joined the chorus of municipalities across the country seeking to hold prescription opioid manufacturers and distributors accountable for the epidemic that has taken dozens of lives locally in recent years.
Major companies pushed the addictive drugs for financial gain while ignoring the devastating health risks, according to a lawsuit filed Aug. 1 in U.S District Court in Milwaukee.
Walworth County joins several others across Wisconsin, including Rock County, to file such lawsuits.
The lawsuit seeking punitive damages “as punishment and a deterrence” names more than 15 defendants including Purdue Pharma, Cardinal Health, Johnson & Johnson and Walmart.
“These pharmaceutical companies aggressively advertised to and persuaded doctors to prescribe highly addictive, dangerous opioids, turning patients into drug addicts for their own corporate profit,” the lawsuit states.
Some of the compensation requested in the lawsuit includes costs for:
- Providing medical care for patients addicted to opioids, including overdoses and deaths.
- Treating and counseling those addicted.
- Providing services to children born with opioid-related medical conditions.
- Providing care for children whose parents are addicted to opioids.
- Law enforcement and public safety services.
“Because of the severe level of danger posed by … these dangerous drugs, Defendants owed a high duty of care to ensure that these drugs were only used for proper medical purposes,” the lawsuit states. “Defendants chose profit over prudence and the safety of the community.”
When a series of such lawsuits were filed in Wisconsin last fall, Purdue Pharma said in a statement they “vigorously deny these allegations,” and Johnson & Johnson said such lawsuits were “legally and factually unfounded.”
In a statement to The Gazette, John Parker, senior vice president for the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, which includes Cardinal Health, called opioid prescription abuse a "complex public health challenge."
“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," Parker said in the statement. "Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation.”
In Walworth County, there were 14 opioid-related deaths in 2014 and 12 in 2015, compared to five in 2006, according to state Department of Health Services data listed in the lawsuit.
The year 2014 saw 29 inpatient and emergency hospitalization visits involving opioids, which is more than double the 2006 total of 14.
Prescription opioids accounted for 75 of the 98 hospital encounters involving all opioids from 2012 to 2014.
Hospital encounters for heroin also went up from zero instances in 2006 and 2007 to 10 in 2014, according to state data in the lawsuit.
Walworth County in 2015 had 80 ambulance runs during which naloxone was administered, tying it for the sixth-most in the state even though the county is the 14th largest by population in the state.
Additionally, there were two cases of neonatal abstinence syndrome in 2006, but that number rose to eight each year in 2012-14, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit attacks the manufacturers’ “false, deceptive and unfair marketing of opioids.”
The marketing methods misled buyers by understating how addictive the drugs, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, were and overstating their benefits.
“The opioid epidemic did not happen by accident,” the lawsuit states.
Update: This article was updated on Wednesday, Aug. 8, to include a statement from the Healthcare Distribution Alliance.