Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi announced Tuesday that she had filed "the most comprehensive lawsuit in the country" against the largest manfacturers and distributors of opioids, blaming them for creating an opioid crisis that has killed more than 10,000 Floridians.
Flanked by police, firefighters and families of opioid victims, Bondi said she wanted "billions" from the companies, which she said misled patients about addictive drugs and ignored people who were ordering suspicious amounts of them.
"It's time the defendants pay for the pain and the destruction that they have caused," Bondi said.
The lawsuit targets some of the largest drug makers in the country, including Purdue Pharma, the creator of the opioids OxyContin and Dilaudid; Endo Pharmaceuticals, which makes the drugs Percocet and Opana; and Johnson & Johnson and some of its subsidiaries, which make the drugs Duragesic and Tapentadol.
Distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson also "failed to report suspicious orders while knowing these customers were filling an inordinate number of prescriptions," the lawsuit alleges.
Bondi said that the companies behind these drugs also created "front groups" that promoted and marketed opioids. She held up literature from these groups that she said were full of misinformation and downplayed the addictive nature of the substances.
For example, in "Treatment Options: A Guide for People Living with Pain," the authors alleged that "despite their great benefits, opioids are often underused" because "heathcare providers may be afraid to prescribe them, and patients may be afraid to take them."
Previous coverage: Pam Bondi's opioid lawsuit? Some of Florida's top lawyers won't touch it.
The long-awaited lawsuit, filed in Pasco County before Circuit Judge Declan Manfield, seeks to recoup the costs for victims and for the cities and counties that have had to spend millions fighting the crisis.
It is an epidemic that Bondi said is indiscriminate in its impact, from the elderly and active teenagers to pregnant mothers and the infants born to them.
"Instead of milk, these babies were coming into the world getting morphine or methadone," she said.
The suit alleges that the companies violated the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, the Florida RICO Act and common law public nuisance. Distributors were also negligent, according to the suit.
The complaint lays out the common narrative about the modern opioid crisis, told over the last two decades by journalists, federal authorities and lawyers: Companies pushed highly addicting pills onto the public without telling people how harmful they were. Many of those people became addicted, and some turned to heroin when they couldn't get pills.
Drug companies aggressively sold their opioids, downplaying how addictive they were and paying "medical professionals" to "endorse and promote the use of opioids," Bondi's complaint states. The complaint calls them "key opinion leaders," or "KOLs"
"The KOLs wrote articles and gave speeches touting the benefits of opioid use as if they were independent medical experts, but they actually served as the Manufacturer Defendants' mouthpieces," the complaint states.
Those "key opinion leaders" were paid by the companies to speak at conferences, given consulting fees, travel and lodging expenses, and food and beverage expenses "if they continued to tout the use of opioids for chronic pain relief."
The companies also funded "front organizations that appeared to be neutral, third-party patient advocacy groups and professional associations that promoted the use of opioids as safe and effective for chronic pain treatment without disclosing known risks of opioid treatment."
And drug distributors, responsible for shipping the pills to pharmacies across the country, "violated their duty by shipping hundreds of millions of opioids into Florida without sounding the alarm or stopping the shipments."
The complaint notes that a single pharmacy in Hudson, a Pasco County town of 34,000 people, purchased 2.2 million opioid pills in 2011 alone – 64 pills for every resident.
A spokesman for Purdue Pharma said they "vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense."
"We are disappointed that after months of good faith negotiations working toward a meaningful resolution to help the state of Florida address the opioid crisis, the attorney general has unilaterally decided to pursue a costly and protracted litigation process," the spokesman said in a statement.
The case promises to be one of the largest lawsuits filed on behalf of Floridians, ranking alongside the multi-billion dollar Big Tobacco case of the 1990s and the 2010 BP oil spill.
But Bondi has been repeatedly criticized for taking so long to file. Already, hundreds of cities, counties and states have filed lawsuits against the same companies.
After her announcement Tuesday, Democratic candidates applauded the filing but criticized how long it's taken.
"I'm glad they are finally taking this long overdue step but remain disappointed it took them so long to do so," said Democratic candidate for governor Gwen Graham.
State Rep. Sean Shaw, D-Tampa, who is running for attorney general, said, "It is disheartening that it took eight years of warnings, thousands of unnecessary deaths, and for her time in office to be coming to an end for Attorney General Bondi to finally acknowledge that Floridians have been facing an overwhelming opioid crisis."
Shaw's competitor in the Democratic primary, Tampa attorney Ryan Torrens, said the question Floridians should be asking is, "What took so long?"
Bondi stressed that it took time to put together a compelling, comprehensive case.
Some lawyers said they did not apply to represent the state, citing an 8-year-old state law that caps contingency fees for lawyers hired by the attorney general at $50 million.
But Bondi said she had no trouble finding top attorneys, saying that 52 firms applied. She settled on a team that includes local and out-of-state law firms, including attorneys Drake Martin and Rich Newsome, which handled, respectively, the BP oil spill and the Takata air bag case.
Bondi said she intentionally was not involved in the first round of selecting the lawyers but personally interviewed each of the finalists.
Bondi's announcement was coordinated with attorneys general of Nevada, Texas, North Carolina, North Dakota and Tennessee, which also filed lawsuits Tuesday, according to Reuters.
Joining Bondi at Riverside Recovery of Tampa, a drug rehabilitation center, were Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Agriculture Commissioner and gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam.
Bondi acknowledged that a settlement was likely. She could not say what the state is seeking in damages, but prophesied it would be in the "millions— billions, probably."
She did not expect leaders at any of these companies to face jail time.
"I wish I could send someone to jail, but I can't," she said. "So we're going after them financially."
There were more than 3,000 opioid-related deaths in Florida last year and 2,000 deaths directly attributed to the drugs, a 27 percent increase from 2016, according to the preliminary findings of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Medical Examiners Commission.
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco called the companies "drug dealers" that were "pushing pills," and he said that lawyers should go after the families that have profited.
The family that own the company that makes OxyContin, for example, is one of the nation's richest and has become one of the biggest donors to the nation's top museums.
"Freeze all the assets of these companies," Nocco said. "Freeze all the assets of the families benefiting all this."