Oldest Municipal Suit Against Opioid Makers May Finally See Its Day In Court

Legal News

In 2014, the city of Chicago sued Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Endo Pharmaceuticals and Allergan PLC, making the Windy City the first in the nation to file a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers. 

After having its case thrown out or trimmed numerous times by U.S. District Judge Jorge L. Alonso, Chicago’s fifth amended complaint was successful. Judge Alonso ruled that the complaint “sufficiently describes how promotional activities led to more deaths, hospitalizations and abuse of street narcotics, such as heroin,” says Law360.com 

This paves the way for Chicago’s bellwether case in multidistrict litigation to finally reach trial. Chicago accuses the drug manufacturers of “fomenting widespread addiction by deceptively marketing prescription opioids, per Law360.com.

In his opinion written last week, Judge Alonso said, “The opioid-related harms that the city experienced were a foreseeable result of defendants’ allegedly deceptive and unfair marketing practices — indeed, they are practically the reason those practices are unlawful.”

Although it’s not 100% certain that Chicago was the first municipality to sue drug manufacturers, seeking to hold them responsible for the opioid crisis, it is widely believed to be the first instance of such a suit. Since then, thousands of cities have sued opioid makers and pharmacies. In 2017, many of the suits brought forth by municipalities were consolidated into multidistrict litigation. The first of the suits (bellwether cases) are expected to reach trial in the near future. 

The Chicago Department of Law issued a statement to Law360.com, calling the recent opinion “a big step forward” that “clears our path” to prove how drugmakers contributed to rampant painkiller abuse. “We are proud of our city’s role as a leader in the litigation, filing one of the first-in-the-nation cases in 2014, and look forward to proving our case in court,” the statement continued. 

Chicago’s Department of Law’s amended complaint, at least the core of it, remained virtually unchanged through the several amended iterations. But one major difference is that in the most recent amendment, the city no longer pursued false claims theories. Law360.com says false claims theories “have become relatively rare in opioid-crisis lawsuits.”

Instead, Chicago’s amended complaint focused on “municipal code violations involving deceptive or unfair business practices, misleading advertising and noncompliance with local, state and federal laws.”

Because the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) imposes a duty on drug companies to avoid shipping suspicious opioid orders — not just monitor and report such orders, Law360.com says that’s another reason that Judge Alonso found Chicago’s amended complaint sufficient to proceed. 

“Given that … defendants were under legal duties, imposed under the CSA, to monitor for suspicious orders and halt shipments of them, the court has little doubt that their alleged failure to do so offends public policy,” Judge Alonso wrote Wednesday, per Law360.com.

Law360.com reports that the ruling in favor of Chicago joins at least a couple other recent legal defeats for drug companies. An Oklahoma federal judge also rejected motions to dismiss from drug distributors and pharmacy chains in a bellwether for Native American tribes. And a West Virginia federal judge rejected efforts by drug distributors to dismiss a trial set to start in May.

To read the full report at Law360.com (subscription required), click here.

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