Lee County, VA and Norton Opioid Epidemic Lawsuit

Case Type: Public Interest Litigation

Companies: Opioid Manufacturers, Distributors, and Pharmacy Benefit Managers

Lee County, Virginia, and the City of Norton, Virginia, represented by Sanford Heisler Sharp Kaufman & Canoles, P.C., and The Cicala Law Firm PLLC today initiated legal action against opioid manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) for their role in creating the public health emergency caused by the overuse of prescription opioids.

Lee County and Norton filed the lawsuits in state court against more than 15 opioid manufacturers, distributors, and PBMs — including pharmaceutical titans Purdue Pharma, McKesson and CVS Caremark. The lawsuits allege that each defendant has contributed to the opioid crisis in Southwest Virginia – drug manufacturers make the opioids and mispresent the truth about their benefits and addiction risks; wholesale distributors ignore their responsibilities to report and stop suspicious orders; and PBMs leverage their role as middlemen to increase the flow of opioids into the marketplace. Lee County and Norton have alleged violations of statutory and common law public nuisance, the Virginia Consumer Protection Act, fraud, common law conspiracy, negligence, and unjust enrichment.

The defendants include manufacturers Purdue Pharma, Abbott Laboratories, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals; Teva Pharmaceuticals, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Cephalon, Inc., Barr Laboratories, Inc., Actavis Pharma, Watson Laboratories, Inc., Allergan PLC, and Insys Therapeutics; distributors AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., and McKesson Corp.; and PBMs Express Scripts, Inc., Caremark/CVS Health; United Health Group Inc., and OptumRx, Inc.

It is widely believed that Lee County and its surrounding area – with its high concentration of dangerous coal mining and logging jobs – was among the first targets of defendants’ nationwide scheme to push the dispensing of opioids for chronic non-cancer pain. The resulting and foreseeable wave of opioid addiction in Lee County and Norton has been devastating.

The rate of overdose deaths in Lee County has steadily risen from 8 to 9.9 deaths per 100,000 in 1999 to 28 to 29.9 deaths per 100,000 in 2016. In Norton, the rate has climbed from 6 to 7.9 deaths per 100,000 people in 1999 to over 30 deaths per year per 100,000 people in 2016. For nearly a decade, babies born in Lee County have been 6-13 times more likely to be born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) than babies born elsewhere in the Commonwealth, and babies in Norton have similarly been far more likely to be born with NAS than babies born elsewhere in Virginia. In 2014, more than 7% of all babies born in Lee County were born addicted to opioids. Additionally, the reported rate of Hepatitis C – a viral condition that can be spread through opioid injection – far outpaces statewide averages in Lee County, peaking in 2012 at more than sixteen times higher than the statewide rate.

Predictably, the influx of opioids into Lee County and Norton has also caused an unprecedented spike in crime, strains on law enforcement and courts, and a dramatic uptick in the need for foster and other child-placement services. Lee County and Norton have been forced to spend substantial and precious public monies to address all of the harms caused by the scourge of opioids that was intentionally unleashed in southwest Virginia. The lawsuit aims to recover such costs and, critically, to abate the flow of these dangerous drugs into our communities.

“We are pleased to represent Lee County and Norton as they seek to hold the defendants accountable for their reprehensible actions and recover the funds the community has spent to address the impact of the opioid crisis. The citizens of Lee County and Norton deserve justice for the harms inflicted upon them by the defendants and our respective firms are proud to take on this fight on their behalf,” said Kevin H. Sharp of Sanford Heisler Sharp.

Joanne Cicala added, “The opioid epidemic is not accidental. It is not a natural disaster. It is a man-made crisis. And worse – the companies that did this were not just seeking to build market share – they knew they were creating addicts. No local government wants to have to file a lawsuit. Local governments have enough to do already, providing services to the public on tight budgets. But this man-made crisis is costing Lee County, Norton, and communities like it dearly – and so Lee County and Norton must respond. Those responsible for this epidemic – those who profited from it – must be held accountable for its costs.”