As the death toll from opioid overdoses continues to rise, Erie County is hitting back with a lawsuit against pharmaceutical makers and doctors who prescribe the drugs. The suit alleges they helped fuel the opioids epidemic, by spreading the falsehood that the medications aren't addictive and potentially lethal.
In the room for the news conference was Debra Smith, who lost her son Nathaniel to an opioid overdose in September 2015. Smith says drug companies and doctors should have known better than to use the opioids.
"It saddens me to think that they had all this information and they chose not to disseminate it while they continued to market substances that they knew were lethal and they knew were harmful to people who were seeking their help for a problem," Smith said. "I will tell you what I feel: I feel as if my son had kidney stones, he had chronic kidney stones and what he wound up with was a death sentence."
County Executive Mark Poloncarz cited preliminary figures: 43 people died of opioid overdoses in January. Erie County is now working with an Illinois law firm with a track record of going after manufacturers of opioids. It has turned into a federal criminal case.
Paul Hanly from Simmons Hanly Conroy said his lawyers had previously sued one of the manufacturers, leading to criminal convictions.
"We obtained very substantial discovery from one of the defendants in this litigation, the Purdue group of companies, and the United States Department of Justice got wind of what we were doing and actually subpoenaed me and my law firm for those documents which Justice then used to secure criminal convictions against Purdue and certain of its executives," Hanly said.
Perdue also paid a $692 million fine.
Along with Suffolk and Broome Counties, Erie is suing 11 pharmaceutical makers and four doctors who worked with the makers, claiming they pushed the message that there was no addiction problem when there was. Based upon Medicaid records and conversations with health insurers, Poloncarz said there are a lot of opioids being used in Erie County.
"Can you tell us yours? And they'll say, 'Why, I can't tell you ours, but your numbers don't surprise us,' which is their way of saying, 'Hmmm, it's probably number one.' So I would say, based on what was prescribed to Medicaid patients in Erie County, it wouldn't shock me if on an annual basis more than 10 million pills of these related drugs were prescribed annually."
The case is being handled by the law firm on a contingency, meaning the firm is paying most of its costs. Hanly said he expects the lawsuit to run on for years, with the drug companies and the doctors likely to throw major legal resources into the fight to challenge it.