Opioids Pills Credit: Kimberly Boyles/Shutterstock.com

Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn on Friday sued a contingent of leading pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies in an effort to hold them liable for their alleged role in the state’s opioid epidemic.

The 124-page complaint accuses the companies, including Purdue Pharma Inc., CVS Health Corp. and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., of using deceptive marketing tactics to increase opioid sales and allowing painkillers to be used for unapproved purposes.

The suit, filed in Delaware Superior Court’s Complex Commercial Litigation Division, seeks compensatory damages to reimburse the state for the cost of battling the crisis through health care, the criminal justice system, social services, welfare and education systems.

It also asks for $10,000 from each defendant for violations of the Delaware Consumer Fraud Act. The complaint did not cite the specific amount the state is seeking because that would ultimately depend on how many false claims it can prove under Delaware statute.

“Opioid manufacturers misrepresented the addictive nature of their products,” Denn said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.

“They, along with national opioid distributors and national pharmacies, knew that they were shipping quantities of opioids around the country so enormous that they could not possibly all be for legitimate medical purposes, but they failed to take basic steps to ensure that those drugs were going only to legitimate patients.”

According to the lawsuit, 694 opioid-related deaths occurred in Delaware between 2007 and 2016—112 in 2016 alone. The epidemic also caused $100 million per year in state resources to be redirected to pay for criminal prosecutions, education and social support systems, the complaint said.

The filing alleged that drug manufacturers like Purdue and Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc. purposely minimized the risk of addiction from opioid painkillers, distributing marketing materials to patients and doctors as early as 1996 that said addiction was “very rare.”

The complaint also said the companies trained salespeople to downplay the potential for addiction when discussing opioids with doctors, and even sponsored training sessions where physicians were given misleading information about the drugs. When evidence of addiction among patients began to emerge, the suit said, the firms worked to keep the information from the public.

The lawsuit cited statistics showing that, each year, more than 50 opioid pills are shipped into Delaware for every man, woman and child living in the state. When limited to the number of residents who have taken opioids, that number jumps to approximately 440 pills per person every year, the complaint said.

According to the lawsuit, the massive market for prescription opioids has led to abuses by distributors and pharmacies, who have allowed the drugs to escape the legitimate supply chain and flow into illegal channels of distribution by filling phony prescriptions and accommodating alarmingly high requests for pills.

“The actions of manufacturer defendants created a huge market for prescription opioids, which in turn led to massive diversion of these drugs from legitimate to illegitimate channels,” the lawsuit said. “Distributor defendants and pharmacy defendants, who have duties to prevent diversion, wrongfully turned a blind eye to it. As a result of the wrongful acts of the defendants, Delaware and its citizens suffered injuries and damages.”

In addition to violations of the Delaware Consumer Fraud Act, the suit alleges common-law nuisance, negligence, unjust enrichment and civil conspiracy against the Purdue, Endo, CVS, Walgreens and distributors McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., AmerisourceBergen Corp., Anda Pharmaceuticals Inc. and H.D. Smith.

The lawsuit was filed with the help of attorneys from Fields Law Firm, Gilbert LLP, Connolly Gallagher and Dolt, Thompson, Shepherd & Conway, which were selected in November to explore the possibility of litigation against companies that may have contributed to Delaware’s opioid crisis.

“The filing of this suit is an important step in what will likely be complex and time-intensive litigation against sophisticated national corporations,” Denn said. “But these defendants must be held accountable for the damage that they have caused to our state and its citizens.”

A spokesman for Walgreens declined to comment Friday on the pending litigation.

Cardinal Health, an Ohio-based distributor, said that it cared “deeply” about the devastation caused by the opioid crisis, saying that it was partnered with others in the industry to institute effective controls to prevent diversion in the opioid supply chain. The company said Denn’s lawsuit lacked merit, and vowed to fight the case in court.

“We operate as part of a multifaceted and highly regulated health care system—we do not promote or prescribe prescription medications to members of the public—and believe everyone in that chain, including us, must do their part, which is ultimately why we believe these copycat lawsuits filed against us are misguided, and do nothing to stem the crisis. We will defend ourselves vigorously in court and at the same time continue to work, alongside regulators, manufacturers, doctors, pharmacists and patients, to fight opioid abuse and addiction,” Cardinal Health said in the statement.

The other defendants did not return requests for comment.