Bennington considers role in suit over opioids

Posted November 25th, 2018.

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Bennington Banner

By Jim Therrien, Bennington Banner

BENNINGTON — A law firm that is pressing lawsuits in Virginia and elsewhere against opioid medication producers is talking to Bennington and other Vermont communities about joining a similar class-action initiative.

The Bennington Select Board is considering a proposal from Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP, a public interest litigation firm with offices in Washington, New York, San Francisco and other U.S. cities, which has been involved in a number of major class-action suits.

Town Manager Stuart Hurd confirmed the proposal last week but declined further comment. He is expected to discuss the issue during the board’s meeting Monday.

Board members reportedly favor the proposal, in part because there would be no upfront cost to the town, with the firm pressing the suit on a contingency basis.

If approved, the town would be joining efforts on the part of multiple cities and county governments to be compensated for the effects of the opioid epidemic from companies involved in the manufacture and distribution of such medications as OxyContin.

According to the proposal, Bennington would participate along other willing Vermont communities, and indirectly with other governmental entities around the nation, in what has become a nationwide effort. Multiple suits seek to hold opioid manufacturers and other firms responsible for an epidemic of addiction that many medical experts blame in large part on the overprescribing of opioids for pain and alleged fraudulent marketing activities to promote the medications to the medical community.

The actions, which are being compared to those that led to major settlements with the tobacco industry, beginning during the late 1990s, also include suits being pushed against similar defendants by more than two dozen U.S. states, including Vermont and New York.

A major difference would be that any damages awarded in the suits on behalf of communities would go directly to those entities, rather than be distributed through state governments.

Efforts also are under way to consolidate individual suits with the same or similar defendants, complaints and claims. Sanford Heisler Sharp currently is working with two other law firms in pursuing the consolidation of suits on behalf of 11 counties and municipalities in Virginia against numerous defendants, including Purdue Pharma, Abbott Laboratories, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals; Teva Pharmaceuticals, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, and PBMs Express Scripts, Inc., CVS Health; and United Health Group Inc.

Allegations include that the opioid epidemic has cost counties and cities across Virginia hundreds of millions of dollars by increasing the costs of law enforcement and court services, foster care and child placement services.

Members of the group Fed Up Vermont brought up the idea of the town joining in a suit during the board’s Nov. 12 meeting, which included a wide-ranging discussion of the opioid epidemic locally and personal stories of addiction’s devastating effects on individuals and families.

During the meeting, Dr. G. Richard Dundas, medical director of the Bennington Free Clinic, described how new pill forms of opioids, such as OxyContin, were first marketed in the early 2000s to the medical profession as having a low risk of causing addiction. But he said an estimated 60 percent of people battling opioid addiction began with prescribed medications.

He said that the number of opioid overdose deaths in the nation reached 72,000 in 2017, and that there are an average of 10 per year in the Bennington area.

He said physicians were encouraged to prescribe the pills and also to focus more on a patient’s perception of their level of pain. Later, Dundas said, many people became addicted to opioids, and when their prescriptions ran out often turned to heroin obtained on the street as an alternative that is significantly cheaper.

Crime, including domestic violence and burglary, also has followed the epidemic’s wake, authorities have said, because addicts often need to steal to obtain money to buy drugs, and personal relationships typically are strained or destroyed in the pursuit of illegal drugs.

Suits have been filed around the country against Purdue Pharma, which created OxyContin in the mid-1990s, and other companies that produce opioid medications or distribute them.

Allegations in these actions have included that the companies knew of the dangers of addiction with opioid medication but promoted it as having a low risk, convincing medical personnel to overprescribe for injuries or conditions that in the past were treated in other ways or with non-addicting medications.

A spokesman for Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP, confirmed the discussions with municipal officials in Vermont but declined to comment in detail because talks are in the preliminary stages.

In addition to the opioid related-cases in Virginia, Sanford Heisler Sharp has been involved with numerous gender or race discrimination, wage and hour violation, consumer fraud and whistleblower and qui tam suits.

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