Portland faces uphill battle in lawsuit against opioid makers

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PORTLAND — City Manager Jon Jennings admitted it won’t be easy to gather evidence to support the city’s lawsuit against opioid manufacturers.

“It will be a lot of work for us to provide evidence and data, but it is well worth it,” Jennings said April 6, a day after the suit was filed in Cumberland County Superior Court.

Working with Auburn law firm Trafton, Matzen, Belleau and Frenette, and Napoli Shkolnick of New York, the complaint alleges pharmaceutical companies and physicians hired to work with them committed fraud, negligence, negligent marketing, received unjust enrichment and created a public nuisance.

The city also alleges the companies violated Maine’s Unfair Trade Practices Act while promoting the use of opioid medications that helped contribute to a record number of overdose deaths and increased costs for public health and safety.

“We are truly in a crisis in the nation as it relates to opiates, and you see it every day in Portland,” Jennings said. “It has only gotten staggeringly worse; I am proud the city has taken the step forward.”

Filed on a contingency basis – meaning the city’s legal costs will be a share of what it earns in a successful verdict – the suit names Purdue Pharma, Teva, Cephalon, Johnson & Johnson, Endo, Actavis, Insys, Mallinckrodt and Janssen and all associated company affiliates as manufacturers.

Distributors named in the suit are McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health 110, and AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp.

Also named are Drs. Douglas J. Jorgensen, Mark E. Cieniawski, Perry Fine, Scott Fishman, and Lynn Webster for their roles in allegedly over-prescribing or promoting overuse of opioid pain medications.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Portland is the third regional city to use Napoli Shkolnick to recover costs related to opioid addiction. Last year, lawsuits in Hillsborough County, New Hampshire, were filed by the cities of Manchester and Nashua. 

On April 5, Augusta city councilors also approved joining the litigation. Governments in Kennebec County and Waterville have also approved filing suit.

The 384-page complaint filed by the city is summarized succinctly as a fight against “corporate greed,” then details the methods by which defendants allegedly encouraged widespread use of opioids originally intended for use “for short-term post-surgical and trauma-related pain, and for palliative (end-of-life) care.”

The complaint alleges manufacturers, distributors and physicians paid by the manufacturers made drugs such as Oxycontin and Percocet staples of care for conditions “to treat more common aches and pains, like lower back pain, arthritis, and headaches.”

In doing so, the suit alleges the companies and physicians ignored or concealed evidence about the addictive qualities of the medications, as well as the fact long-term use of the medications could cause fatal overdoses.

“Together, opioids generated $8 billion in revenue for drug companies in 2012,” the complaint said.

Opioid addictions are increasingly costly to the city, according to a press release about the suit.

In 2017, the state attorney general’s office determined 57 of 418 overdoses in Maine occurred in Portland. Dr. Marcella Sorg said opioid use was linked to 51 of the fatal city overdoses. There were 42 fatal overdoses in Portland and 376 in Maine in 2016.

The costs are also measured in calls for service to police and emergency responders because of overdoses and for administering naxolone, known by its Narcan tradename. 

City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said police service calls went from 180 to 266 in 2016-2017, and police officers have used Narcan 103 times since they began carrying it in the fall of 2016. The Fire Department administered Narcan 204 times in 2017, up from 143 the year before.

City crews collected about 1,800 discarded needles last year, while the needle exchange at 103 India St. distributed 173,000 clean syringes and collected 186,000 used ones. The needle exchange does not receive city, state or federal funding.

“It is a very overwhelming set of propositions we deal with on a daily basis,” Jennings said of the impact of opioid addictions.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.