By Robert Storace

Waterbury is suing several pharmaceutical companies and physicians for their alleged role in causing the city’s prescription drug epidemic, a move that mirrors litigation seen in other parts of the nation.

The lawsuit filed in Waterbury Superior Court alleges an ongoing conspiracy by the companies as it relates to the safety and use of opioids.

“The defendants have manufactured, promoted and marketed opioids for the management of pain by misleading consumers and providers through material misrepresentation and/or omissions regarding the appropriate use, risks and safety of opioids,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit is one of more than 10 filed against pharmaceutical companies by the Simmons Hanly Conroy law firm on behalf of municipalities across the country.

Paul Hanly.

Courtesy photo

Firm chairman Paul Hanly told the Connecticut Law Tribune Thursday “there are thousands of cases against these companies” and that he plans on filing another 30 lawsuits in the next four months.

“The drug companies that manufacture and market opioids started a conspiracy in 1995 to misrepresent the dangers of opioid pain medication,” Hanly said. “The result is the nationwide epidemic we have today.”

The ongoing conspiracy includes a “coordinated, sophisticated and highly deceptive marketing campaign that began in the late 1990s, became more aggressive in or about 2006, and continues to present,” according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit also claims the defendants “misled doctors, patient, and payors through the use of misleading terms like ‘pseudoaddiction.’”

The listed defendants are Purdue Pharma, Purdue Pharma Inc., The Purdue Frederick Co. Inc., Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc., Cephalon Inc., Johnson & Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., Janssen Pharmaceutica Inc., Endo Health Solutions Inc., Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc., Dr. Perry Fine, Dr. Scott Fishman and Dr. Lynn Webster. The lawsuit claims Fine, Fishman and Webster were instrumental in promoting opioids for sale and distribution nationally.

With regard to Webster, the suit notes Purdue sponsored a 2011 webinar she taught titled “Managing Patients’ Opioid Use: Balancing the Need and Risk.” The publication “misleadingly taught prescribers that screening tools, urine tests and patient agreements have the effect of preventing ‘overuse of prescriptions’ and overdose deaths,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit does not elaborate on Fine and Fishman.

The opioids include brands like OxyContin and Percocet and generics such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.

Waterbury, Connecticut’s fifth-largest city with about 108,000 residents, is a perfect example of where opioid abuse has cause havoc, Hanly said.

“They have a huge overdose problem and have had hundreds of deaths from opioid overdoses,” he said. “It has meant increased law enforcement costs and a loss of productivity.”

Mayor Neil O’Leary met with leaders from more than 20 Connecticut municipalities to discuss the case and to see if they’re interested in joining shortly after the lawsuit was filed Thursday. The city is seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

During the closed-door meeting, Hanly said “the mayor told us that just two city employees out for opioid addiction have cost the city $700,000.”

According to the lawsuit, there were as many as 82 opioid prescriptions per 100 people in Connecticut in 2014.

In 2015, 2.6 million opioid prescriptions were filled in the state. Furthermore, the lawsuit alleges, the defendants’ had a negative economic impact on Connecticut municipalities.

As a result, Waterbury has spent money to pay for the increased amount of opioid prescriptions, according to the lawsuit. The city spent $1.4 million on opioid prescriptions for city employees in 2016. The lawsuit said that’s a 212 percent increase from 2013.

The Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reported that in 2016, 917 people in Connecticut died of a drug overdose, the vast majority of which were opioid-related, according to the lawsuit. The Medical Examiner’s Office projected on Monday that drug overdose deaths will exceed 1,000 this year.

“This [opioids] is the 21st century version of tobacco, but worse,” Hanly said. “With tobacco, you develop lung cancer over a period of time. Here [with opioids], you have a loved one drop dead in the middle of the afternoon.”

Hanly predicts that by the end of this year, he will have sued pharma companies in more than half of New York’s 62 counties. Other suits have been filed in Mississippi, New Hampshire, Chicago, California and Oklahoma. Some have led to big payouts. They include a lawsuit filed in Kentucky in 2007 that settled for $24 million in 2015.

The Connecticut lawsuit includes counts for violating the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, public nuisance, fraud, negligent misrepresentation, innocent misrepresentation and unjust enrichment.

Assisting Hanly in the case are James Hartley Jr., Devin Hartley and Charles Hellman, all with Drubner, Hartley & Hellman; Sarah Burns, an associate with Simmons Hanly Conroy; and founder/principal William Clendenen Jr., partner Kevin Shea and associate Maura Mastrony, all of Clendenen & Shea.

The defendants were either not available or could not be reached for comment Thursday.