Travis County joins other counties, cities suing over opioid crisis


Highlights

More than two dozen states, cities and counties have filed such lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies.

Drug companies have largely denied wrongdoing.

Travis County will join dozens of other counties and cities throughout the country attempting to recover costs from the opioid epidemic by suing manufacturers, distributors and marketers of the prescription drugs.

“This has been a long time coming,” Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said Tuesday. “This puts a very big strain on our criminal justice system as well as putting a big strain on our health community.”

Most of the specifics of the suit are still being worked out, officials said. Eckhardt said the county will work with attorneys to determine who will be named in the suit, what charges will be brought and when.

More than two dozen states, cities and counties, including several in Texas, have filed such lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies, claiming the companies aggressively marketed the drugs and lied about the risks to make money.

Upshur County in East Texas was the first Texas county to file suit in late September, and Dallas, Tarrant, Kendall, Kerr and Bexar counties have indicated they plan to sue as well. Eckhardt said Travis County will likely consolidate with other interested parties to form one suit.

Texas has not filed suit so far, but Attorney General Ken Paxton announced in June that he was joining a bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general to investigate whether manufacturers have used illegal methods to market and sell opioids and to determine their role in the crisis.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 91 Americans die every day from opioid overdoses, and deaths from prescription opioids, including oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone, have more than quadrupled since 1999.

A University of Texas study in 2014 found that Travis County had an overdose death rate of 2.3 per 100,000 people, one of the lowest rates among large Texas counties.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: A few states making big strides in shuttering pill mills

Eckhardt and others have compared the wave of opioid-related suits hitting pharmaceutical industry to those that hit the tobacco industry in the 1990s, when cigarette companies agreed to pay billions of dollars in fines in the largest civil settlement in history.

Drug companies have largely denied wrongdoing. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America declined to comment Tuesday about the litigation targeting the industry, but the trade group issued a press release pledging to fund state and local programs and assist in policy changes to address the crisis.

“We are deeply committed to addressing the opioid crisis and advancing solutions that will make a meaningful difference for families and communities,” organization President and CEO Stephen J. Ubl said in the press release.

Some legal experts note a difference between the tobacco lawsuits, which involved customers using the products as intended, and the opioid lawsuits, which point to abuse of drugs beyond what a doctor prescribed, if a doctor prescribed the drugs at all.

“It is difficult to persuade courts that FDA-approved prescription drugs are defective and that their warnings are inadequate,” Richard Ausness, a University of Kentucky College of Law professor, told the Atlantic in June.

STATESMAN INVESTIGATES: Texas doctors rarely charged in prescription drug epidemic

Scott Hendler, one of the attorneys hired by Travis County, emphasized to Travis County commissioners in November the harm he alleges the companies have caused by aggressively pushing drugs they knew were highly addictive, then leaving local governments and other agencies to deal with the consequences. Hendler argued there are similarities between pharmaceutical companies and drug cartels.

“The only difference … is that the drug cartels are distributing illegal drugs and the pharmaceutical industries are distributing what are legal but their methods are really illegal,” Hendler said. “They have created pill mills. They have marketed to physicians and prescribers in ways unheard of 10 years ago.”

Hendler said drugs that were developed for cancer-related pain have now been “repackaged and remarketed to people for minor back pain or post-surgical pain.”

The drugs are so addictive that abuse problems often result from legally prescribed drugs and cause addictions so unrelenting they often take months of rehabilitation to overcome, he said.

“I think that taking it on now to interdict the source of the problem is the way to combat it,” Hendler said.

RELATED: Five things to know about opioids in Travis County

Commissioners approved a resolution last month to retain the Lanier Law Firm; Hendler Lyons Flores PLLC; the law office of Richard Schecter P.C. and Reich & Binstock LLP to represent the county, and they revised the resolution Tuesday.

The attorney’s fee arrangement is 25 percent of gross recovery plus reimbursement of expenses, capped at 35 percent total, Eckhardt said. If the county prevails, fees will be paid only from what is recovered in the lawsuit, and no money will be paid from the county’s general fund or any special fund, according to the resolution.

If Travis County recoups any money from the suit, Eckhardt said, it would go toward criminal justice and social service programs related to the opioid crisis.

“This is not a lawsuit for profit,” she said. “This is a lawsuit in order to recover costs and address opioid addiction by Travis County residents from a public health perspective because this public health crisis has been created, in some measure, we believe, by practices of the pharmaceutical industry.”



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

TX women’s program makes gains after years of waning participation
TX women’s program makes gains after years of waning participation

A state health program for low-income women served more patients, attracted more providers and put more women on long-acting reversible contraception last year than in prior years, according to a report released Thursday. Even with the improvements, it’s unclear whether the program, called Healthy Texas Women, is serving more women than before...
Bastrop bar sued, accused of airing Mayweather-Pacquiao 'fight of the century' without purchasing rights
Bastrop bar sued, accused of airing Mayweather-Pacquiao 'fight of the century' without purchasing rights

A company that licenses the rights to air pay-per-view boxing matches is suing a bar in Bastrop, accusing the bar of illegally showing the so-called “fight of the century” in 2015 in which five-division world champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. defeated eight-division world champion Manny Pacquiao in a boxing match in Las Vegas. J&J...
Explosive device with note found outside Beaumont Starbucks, police say
Explosive device with note found outside Beaumont Starbucks, police say

Police found an “explosive device” at a Starbucks in Beaumont early Thursday. “The device, believed to be a legitimate explosive device, was rendered safe by the FBI and ATF bomb technicians,” Beaumont police said in a statement.  As a result, Beaumont police are urging their community not to open or touch suspicious...
Austin City Council renames two streets named for Confederate leaders
Austin City Council renames two streets named for Confederate leaders

Robert E. Lee Road and Jeff Davis Avenue are no more after the Austin City Council on Thursday voted to remove the names of the Confederate leaders from the two Austin streets that bear their names. Instead the road that ambles along Barton Creek into the Zilker neighborhood will be named for Azie Taylor Morton, the country’s first and only black...
Onyeri guilty on all 17 counts in case tied to Judge Kocurek shooting
Onyeri guilty on all 17 counts in case tied to Judge Kocurek shooting

A federal jury returned guilty verdicts on all 17 counts against the Houston man accused of shooting Travis County state District Judge Julie Kocurek to preserve a white-collar criminal enterprise that swept up victims in Southeast Texas, Louisiana and Austin. The verdict that could send 30-year-old Chimene Onyeri to prison for the rest of his life...
More Stories