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'Pill spill': Hillsborough officials announce details of opioid lawsuit

Published Aug. 14, 2018

TAMPA — Attorney Mike Moore has a legal analogy for the lawsuit Hillsborough County filed Tuesday against 14 drug makers and distributors.

When oil giant BP's rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, killing 11 people and spilling millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the company eventually paid to compensate for the lives lost and the ecological damage, said Moore, a Mississippi-based lawyer who worked on that settlement.

Now Hillsborough County is joining the ranks of plaintiffs who want companies responsible for the opioid addiction crisis to take similar responsibility.

"Just like BP paid to clean up the oil spill, we want these companies to pay to clean up the pill spill," Moore, who is part of a team of lawyers representing the county, said at a news conference.

Hillsborough officials announced their intention to sue last week but offered more details Tuesday and a copy of the 108-page complaint.

Among the defendants listed are well-known names such as Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin and Dilaudid, and Walgreens and CVS.

"No company should ever place its desire for profits above the health and well-being of its customers or the communities where those customers live," the suit says. "This is particularly so when the product that the company manufactures, distributes and sells is a narcotic."

The complaint says drug manufacturers helped cause the addiction crisis and violated Florida's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act by aggressively marketing opioid drugs, overplaying their benefits in treating chronic pain and down-playing their dangers. It notes there is not a single valid scientific study that supports the use of opioids for treatment of long-term chronic pain.

The lawsuit also alleges distributors — drug stores and pharmacies such as CVS and Walgreens — flooded markets and failed to act as a check on suspiciously large orders.

There are drug stores in Hillsborough that received between 50 and 70 times the amount of opioid drugs than the average store in Florida, Moore said.

The goal of the suit, officials said, is to win a sum large enough to grapple with the effects of addiction and stem the tide of new addicts. This means funding drug treatment and prevention programs and drug courts and foster care programs for children taken from their drug-addicted parents.

The county has been working on an action plan to attack the crisis and will release it in about 30 days, Hillsborough County Commission Chairwoman Sandy Murman said.

"Without this lawsuit and the potential recoveries, we cannot get the vast number of people into treatment that need to be in treatment," Murman said. "We know that more funding will help. Every dollar spent on treatment will save four dollars on health care and seven in law enforcement (costs)."

"This is not an epidemic that we're going to arrest our way out of," Sheriff Chad Chronister said. "It's going to take education, treatment, prevention and obviously enforcement."

Officials pointed to some disturbing statistics that help tell the story of the crisis here.

In 2016, Hillsborough reported 579 babies born addicted to drugs — the most among Florida's 67 counties, according to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration. Since 2012, the county saw more than 1,072 opioid overdose deaths, county medical examiner data show.

Hillsborough joins about 1,000 city and county governments nationwide that have joined in similar suits against opioid makers, Moore said. The city of Tampa has also hired counsel to explore a lawsuit, spokeswoman Ashley Bauman said Tuesday.

But Moore, a former Mississippi attorney general who is now handling a number of similar suits on behalf of local and state governments nationwide, says he expects Hillsborough's to be "a leadership case" because of the scale of the impact here and the united front that local officials have formed.

"This is a premier showing of a county committed to doing something," Moore said, pointing to Murman, Chronister and other officials on the dais next to him, such as State Attorney Andrew Warren and county Fire Chief Dennis Jones.

Meanwhile, state attorneys general are filing lawsuits in state court.

RELATED: Pam Bondi files lawsuit against opioid makers and distributors

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi announced in May that she had filed "the most comprehensive lawsuit in the country" against the largest manufacturers and distributors of opioids, blaming them for creating an opioid crisis that has killed more than 10,000 Floridians. The suit was filed in Pasco County and targets some of the same defendants listed in Hillsborough's suit, including Purdue Pharma and Endo Pharmaceuticals, which makes the drugs Percocet and Opana, and distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson.

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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