Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said they are no better than a corner drug dealer. He was referring to corporate opioid makers. Poloncarz sees the county's lawsuits against them benefitting from an Oklahoma judge's ruling this week that Johnson & Johnson intentionally played down the risks, oversold the benefits of the drugs and must pay $572 million.
In the aftermath of the Oklahoma case, opioid maker Purdue Pharma suddenly offered up to $12 billion to settle thousands of lawsuits against the company and its owning Sackler family. They are among 22 opioid makers, distributors and pharmacies being sued, a total of 2,000 cases slated to go to trial in Cleveland in October.
There are others. Erie County is involved in several.
"The arguments are very similar to what we have been saying all along, from the plaintiff's point of view," said Poloncarz. "The pharmaceutical companies knew that their product was addictive and could result in death, yet they kept on going out there and telling the public it was a safe, non-addictive alternative for pain management."
Poloncarz said the Oklahoma decision came from a judge in a conservative state and sends a message about drugs and deaths.
"There were many in Erie County who died of overdoses as a result of addiction from pain medication and I don't think this will bring a whole lot of solace to the families that lost loved ones in Oklahoma," he said, "but it does send a message to the pharmaceutical companies that you will be held responsible for the deaths that you caused."
Poloncarz is cautious about any money benefit to the county. Johnson & Johnson has already said it will appeal the judge's decision and that process might take many years.
Still, the one-time corporate lawyer said drug companies have to look at the facts in a conservative state and up-coming trials at other places, like more liberal Cleveland, New York City and Long Island.
"If I was the pharmaceutical companies and I'm looking at this judgment, I would be very hesitant to try to take this to trial, knowing that this is a strong decision based on some very good evidence and if I was them, I'd be very hesitant to try to push my luck elsewhere," Poloncarz said.