The City of Jacksonville has joined the national effort to hold drug manufacturers accountable, and financially liable, for the explosion of opioid abuse and overdoses.
In a 144-page complaint filed Feb. 27 in the 4th Judicial Circuit Court, the city names as defendants 16 drug manufacturers, four pharmaceutical distribution and sales companies, and as individuals, five former executives of the companies.
The city has engaged as outside specialized counsel the services of Scott+Scott Attorneys at Law LLP, a New York City-based law firm that is representing numerous other municipalities nationwide in similar actions, as co-counsel.
Scott+Scott will receive 15 percent of the net recovery if the case is settled before trial; 20 percent if the case proceeds through trial and appeal.
The costs and expenses of litigation will be deducted prior to the calculation of the fee. The city will not be responsible for payment of any attorneys’ fees, expenses or costs of litigation associated with Scott+Scott’s services unless a recovery is achieved during the course of litigation.
The city Office of General Counsel will supervise all litigation and direct Scott+Scott in the discharge of its respective duties.
The complaint alleges that opioid manufacturers engaged in a systematic plan to deceive doctors and patients about the addictive nature of their products and the products’ efficacy in the management of chronic pain.
It also alleges that the defendants employed physicians who published misleading articles in medical journals aimed at doctors who treat chronic pain; created false and unsupported literature that appeared to be independent and objective, but was not; and sponsored continuing medical education courses that persuaded doctors who prescribed opioids that the drugs were appropriate for pain relief and posed little or no serious threat of addiction.
Misuse and abuse of opioids is a national issue and data indicates it also is having a growing local impact.
According to the Medical Examiners Commission of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, in 2016, 489 people died of overdose in Jacksonville after using prescription opioids, compared to 81 who died from overdose after using heroin.
There also is an escalating economic impact related to opioid overdose intervention.
According to data compiled by the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department, personnel responded to 2,114 overdose calls in 2015, to 3,411 in 2016 and 3,686 in 2017.
The number of patients who are taken to the hospital for treatment of overdose and the costs of transporting overdose patients also are escalating.
In 2015, JFRD transported 1,903 overdose patients at a cost of $1.9 million. In 2016, 3,156 patients were transported at a cost of $3.1 million; and last year, 3,505 overdose patients were transported at a cost of $3.6 million.
In addition, JFRD administered nearly $96,000 worth of naloxone — the antidote for opioid overdose — last year, representing more than 7 percent of the department’s medical supplies budget.
The complaint contends the city has incurred, and continues to incur, costs related to opioid addiction; escalated overdose rates; criminal justice and victimization costs; social costs; lost productivity costs; loss of quality of life; increase in blighted areas; costs incurred to protect abused; abandoned, neglected and at-risk children; as well as escalating costs from increased foster care.
The complaint also alleges that the city has been directly damaged through its payment for inappropriate chronic opioid therapy and ensuing payments for addiction-related treatment for its employees, retirees and their families by partially funding a medical insurance plan and the city workers’ compensation program.
Jacksonville attorney W.C. Gentry, who was a member of the Florida legal team that secured a settlement for the state when it sued tobacco companies, said the cases are similar in terms of the allegations and the complaint filed by the city.
“This is a huge public health crisis that parallels the tobacco litigation,” he said.
Gentry said the likely next step will be for each of the 25 defendants to file motions to dismiss. Hearings before a judge will have to be heard on each motion.
“I expect that each preliminary motion hearing will take days,” he said, based on the volume of evidence.
Gentry also said the defendants are likely to attempt to have the case removed to federal court, since the manufacturers are headquartered outside the state. That might not happen, he said, because two of the individual defendants are residents of Florida.
“If they can stay in circuit court, it would put Jacksonville in a strong position to move the case quickly,” he said.