Posted May 11th, 2020.
By EVAN GOODENOW The Winchester Star
Some major drug manufacturers and distributors are being sued for $90 million in compensatory damages and $16.8 million in punitive damages by Frederick County, which accuses them of fueling and profiting from the opiate epidemic.
The lawsuit names 48 defendants, including drug maker Teva Pharmaceuticals, pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens, and retailers like Walmart.
“Each defendant group bears culpability in the crisis and is a necessary party to addressing the damage it has wreaked, including the costs of abatement,” said the suit, filed by the Washington D.C.-based Sanford, Heisler, Sharp law firm on Wednesday in Frederick County Circuit Court. “Defendants have generated a loyal customer base: hundreds of thousands of patients whose addiction guarantees an insatiable demand for drugs and consistently high profits.”
Since 2012 — when the national epidemic took hold locally — about 240 people have fatally overdosed in the Lord Fairfax Health District, which encompasses Winchester as well as Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties. Of the 27 people in the district who died last year, six were from Frederick County, according to Joshua T. Price, a state police special agent and coordinator of the Northwest Regional Drug and Gang Task Force. This year, eight of the 24 regional deaths through Thursday involved county residents.
No price can be put on a life, but the suit seeks reimbursement for costs such as fire and police department responses to overdoses. Last year, the Frederick County Fire and Rescue Department revived 78 people with the overdose reversal drug naloxone. The department administered 441 doses of naloxone — victims frequently need more than one dose — between 2015 and the end of last year.
The Frederick County Sheriff’s Office revived 163 people between last year and 2017, the first year deputies were equipped with naloxone. Sheriff Lenny Millholland said in an interview on Friday that a substantial amount of time is spent investigating overdoses after they occur including how the victim got the drugs and who sold or provided it to them.
The Sheriff’s Office, which has 146 full-time deputies and 10 part-timers, has two deputies assigned to the regional task force and two assigned to a federal drug task force. Another is assigned to the Northwest Regional Adult Drug Treatment Court.
Besides drug interdiction, a significant amount of time and money is spent investigating opioid-related crimes, such as burglaries or thefts by drug users seeking money to pay for drugs. Millholland said at least 16,000 hours are spent by his agency on drug-related investigations.
Over the last four years, the Sheriff’s Office responded to an average of 512 drug-related calls annually, many of them opioid-related. So far this year, there have been 234. At the current pace, that works out to about 700 calls by year’s end, an approximately 36% increase over the annual average.
“It is out of control and we don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel,” Millholland said in an email. “There has been a lot of money made by many in the drug trade. The question can be asked as to who is responsible for making the medication and how it gets distributed, whether legally or not.”
The lawsuit is similar to one filed on behalf of the city of Winchester by Sanford, Heisler, Sharp in February for $67 million. The firm represents about 60 municipalities around Virginia seeking compensation from the pharmaceutical industry, according to attorney Andrew H. Miller who helped write the suits.
The companies have said in the past that abuses were infrequent and unintentional. However, the county lawsuit contains information from discovery documents in past lawsuits nationwide revealing a possible pattern of culpability by some defendants.
For instance, the county lawsuit mentions that the McKesson Corp., one of the biggest distributors in Virginia, emailed employees to not use the word “suspicious” about large shipments of drugs. “Once we deem an order and/or customer suspicious, McKesson is required to act,” the suit said, quoting a McKesson email and noting the company later settled with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The suit noted Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, relied on hourly employees to identify suspicious orders until 2011 rather than having a formal oversight procedure in place.
“There is no evidence of Walmart reporting any suspicious order prior to 2011,” the suit said. “Walmart installed a suspicious monitoring system in 2015, but it was so forgiving that a store could order 10 dosages of 10 milligrams in one month and 7,999 dosages in the next without raising red flags.”
The suit noted CVS paid a $22 million penalty for employees in Florida dispensing drugs after receiving illegitimate prescriptions. Walgreens paid an $80 million settlement, the largest in DEA history, over improper dispensing and record keeping.
Miller said negotiations on a possible settlement could be lengthy, and no trial dates have been set in Virginia. He said there could be individual settlements. While acknowledging that the amount of lawsuits around the county will make it harder to obtain substantial payouts, he said it’s possible because the defendants weren’t profiting from legitimate uses of painkillers.
“A lot of defendants would like to conflate the irresponsible and reckless oversupply they created with the limited, medically appropriate types of uses. That’s very much a strategy of these defendants in this litigation to try and muddy the waters of where those two types of uses begin and end,” Miller said. “When you look at the numbers and the behavior, it’s just jaw-droppingly irresponsible conduct of these companies in just flooding communities with these drugs.”