Hernando latest local government to sue opioid manufacturers

The Hernando County Government Center in Brooksville. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]
The Hernando County Government Center in Brooksville. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published June 11, 2019

Hernando County is the latest Florida government to sue pharmaceutical companies in a bid to hold them responsible for the opioid addiction crisis.

The Pensacola law firm of Levin Papantonio is representing the county in the federal lawsuit, which was filed last week in the Middle District of Florida in Tampa against several drug manufacturers, including Johnson & Johnson, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Inc. and Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin and Dilaudid.

The 174-page complaint accuses the companies of negligence, fraud, creating a public nuisance and violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or the RICO Act. It was filed on June 6 and is just one of many filed on behalf of governments across Florida and the nation by a law firm former governor Rubin Askew helped found in 1955.

"The manufacturers aggressively pushed highly addictive, dangerous opioids, falsely representing to doctors that patients would only rarely succumb to drug addiction," the complaint states. "These pharmaceutical companies aggressively advertised to and persuaded doctors to prescribe highly addictive, dangerous opioids, which turned patients into drug addicts for their own corporate profit."

In the past year, the state of Florida and local governments in the Tampa Bay area have joined the ranks of those who have filed similar suits, such as Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and the cities of Tampa and Clearwater.

"(Hernando County) is experiencing an excessive drug overdose rate related to an excessive volume of prescription opiates proximately caused by the wrongful conduct by the Defendants described and named herein," the lawsuit says. "The opioid prescription rates in Plaintiff's Community exceeded any legitimate medical, scientific, or industrial purpose."

When the Tampa Bay Times asked for the Hernando County data cited in the lawsuit, Levin Papantonio attorney Archie Lamb said it was sealed by a court order and cannot be shared.

Purdue Pharma denies the allegations and will continue to defend itself, according to a company spokesman.

"We believe that no pharmaceutical manufacturer has done more to address the opioid addiction crisis than Purdue," the company statement said. "The company acted decisively to address reports of widespread abuse and diversion of OxyContin once it became aware of the issue in 2000."

Lamb said his firm has filed up to 30 lawsuits in Florida, including on behalf of Broward, Miami-Dade and Polk counties. The firm has filed more than 1,000 suits across the country since late 2016. None have yet to go to trial.

One goal of these lawsuits is to force pharmaceutical companies to help pay to treat those addicted to opioids.

"We want to stop the over-prescription and oversupply of pharmaceuticals and narcotics," Lamb said. "There's been the creation of an addicted population."

Contact Paige Fry at Follow @paigexfry.