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Clearwater is latest Tampa Bay government to sue opioid industry

JIM DAMASKE | Times Clearwater joins more than 1,000 governments across the country, including Tampa and Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties in suing opioid manufacturers and distributors.
Published Nov. 29, 2018

CLEARWATER — Over the past six years, the city's workers compensation and employee health care plans have shelled out nearly $200,000 on opioid prescriptions alone.

During roughly that same period, the city government gave $71,841 in grants to a facility that treats city residents for addiction.

And from 2014 to 2016, 643 people in Pinellas County died from opioid-related causes.

Now the Clearwater government is asking the companies it says manufactured a nationwide crisis for profit to pay.

Clearwater is the latest Tampa Bay municipality to sue some of the country's largest drug companies, alleging manufacturers lied about the risks of addiction to opioids through deceptive marketing while distributors flooded pharmacies and communities with the pills.

"The opioids that flooded into and were dispensed throughout Clearwater as a result of defendants' wrongful conduct have devastated the city and its residents," attorneys for Clearwater wrote in the lawsuit filed in Pinellas County Circuit Court. The companies funneled so many opioids into the city "that they could only have been delivering opioids for diversion and illicit use."

Clearwater joins more than 1,000 city and counties across the country that have sued the opioid industry, including the city of Tampa and Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Attorney General Pam Bondi filed suit in May, blaming manufacturers and distributors for the opioid crisis that has killed 10,000 Floridians.

Clearwater's lawsuit names a dozen defendants, including Purdue Pharma, which makes Oxycontin, and Endo Pharmaceuticals, the makers of Percocet. Distributors McKesson, Cardinal, AmerisourceBergen and Walgreens, also named as defendants, together distribute nearly 90 percent of the prescription drugs in the United States, the lawsuit states.

The city is being represented by Clearwater attorney Louis Kwall and a team from Washington D.C. firm Motley Rice, which has become a nationwide leader in representing municipalities in opioid lawsuits. In January, Motley Rice co-founder Joe Rice was appointed co-lead counsel in a federal lawsuit against the opioid industry that consolidated hundreds of complaints from governments across the U.S.

"There are repercussions from the opioid issue that we do have to deal with," City Attorney Pam Akin said. "It's important for us to protect our position and potentially recover some of those costs."

Clearwater's legal team is working on contingency and will be paid only if the city receives a ruling in its favor, Akin said. The team would receive 20 percent of any judgment and 25 percent if it goes to trial.

Clearwater's 137-page complaint makes much of the same argument detailed in other municipalities' lawsuits against drug companies: that beginning in the 1990s, manufacturers like Purdue cultivated a narrative that pain was undertreated and should be a priority for health care providers.

Between the 1990s and 2011, prescriptions of oxycodone more than doubled in the U.S. Opioid prescriptions as a whole increased 31 percent, the lawsuit states.

Manufacturers unleashed a multi-million dollar promotional scheme that trivialized opioid addiction and lied about the effectiveness for long-term treatment, attorneys wrote. This included paying doctors and other experts millions of dollars to deliver talks and other outreach on the benefits of opioids in exchange for funding and research grants. Meanwhile, distributors flooded the market, ignoring their legal duty to report suspicious shipments of drugs to pharmacies and doctors.

By 2014, almost 2 million Americans were addicted to prescription opioids, the lawsuit states. Between 1999 and 2015, more than 194,000 people died from overdoses related to prescription opioids, more than the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War.

"As a direct result ... the nation is now swept up in what the (Centers for Disease Control) called a 'public health epidemic' and what the U.S. President deemed a 'public health emergency,'" the lawsuit states.

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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