JONESBORO — A opioid lawsuit filed in March 2018 in Northeast Arkansas on behalf of several cities and counties against the pharmaceutical industry has grown bigger and more complex.
And progress toward a resolution has been slowed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Lawyers from across the country were scheduled to attend a hearing Tuesday in Jonesboro, but that has now been pushed back to Sept. 30 in Jonesboro after an attorney from Birmingham, Ala., complained that an in-person hearing would be too hazardous.
Second Judicial District Prosecutor Scott Ellington filed the lawsuit in Crittenden County Circuit Court. Since then, the list of plaintiffs has grown to include all 75 county governments and 16 of the state’s most populous cities, including Jonesboro.
The cities and counties seek money from as many as 60 drug manufacturers and distributors to reimburse them for the costs they’ve incurred in fighting the opioid epidemic.
“From the beginning in this case, the plaintiff governments – the State of Arkansas, all 75 Arkansas counties, and the 16 highest-population cities of Arkansas – have alleged that the defendant opioid manufacturers and distributors caused the Arkansas opioid epidemic, and the defendants should pay what it costs to abate the epidemic that they created,” Ellington told The Sun. “The defendants should pay to meaningfully address the deaths, overdoses, addiction, neonatal abstinence syndrome, judicial costs, social services, family displacements, and other harms and threats that they have allegedly created.”
No dollar amount of what the state, cities and counties believe pharmaceutical manufacturers and marketers should pay in Arkansas has been disclosed.
Since the case was filed, attorneys have been fighting over access to thousands of records to bolster each others’ claims.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge filed a similar lawsuit in Pulaski County Circuit Court shortly after Ellington’s suit was filed against many of the same companies to recover the medical and law enforcement costs the state has incurred due to opioid abuse. A trial in that case is scheduled for October 2021.
Statistics from the Arkansas Department of Health showed that in 2017, 108.1 opioid prescriptions were written per 100 persons. That means enough opioid prescriptions were written for every person in Arkansas to have their own bottle of pills.
Between 2015 and 2016, the report found that 4.89 percent of Arkansans over age 12 misused pain relievers. Non-medical use of pain relievers is higher in Arkansas than it is in all of its border states, said Chris Villines, executive director for the Association of Arkansas Counties, after Ellington’s suit was filed.
The defendants in the two Arkansas cases have already reached settlements in similar lawsuits in other states.
In 2019, opioid distributors McKesson Corp., AmerisourceBergen, and Cardinal Health, and drug manufacturer Teva Pharmaceuticals, agreed to a $260 million settlement with Cuyahoga and Summit counties in Ohio, according to the Washington Post.
In 2019, OxyContin manufacturer Purdue filed for bankruptcy as part of an estimated $12 billion settlement with state and local governments, reported The Associated Press. As part of the proposed settlement, the Sackler family agreed to pay at least $3 billion in the settlement plus contribute the company itself, and its future profits, to the bankruptcy trustee. The trustee has provided forms for each of the Arkansas plaintiffs to file claims, according to the court files.
In 2019, CNN reported an Oklahoma judge ruled that Johnson and Johnson must pay the state of Oklahoma $572 million, stating: “The defendants caused an opioid crisis that is evidenced by increased rates of addiction, overdose deaths, and neonatal abstinence syndrome.”
In 2017, McKesson Corporation, one of the nation’s largest distributors of pharmaceuticals, paid a $150 million civil penalty for violations of the Controlled Substances Act. McKesson was failing to report “suspicious orders” for oxycodone and hydrocodone, such as orders that were suspicious in frequency, size or other patterns, the Justice Department announced.
No trial date is set in the cities and counties lawsuit.