County enters national opioid lawsuit

Clatsop County is joining the fight against drugmakers over opioids.

Clatsop County will join a national lawsuit against a host of pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors, asserting the companies should bear much of the responsibility for opioid abuse.

The county will band with Clackamas, Washington and Lane counties, with at least five others in Oregon expected to sign on, County Counsel Heather Reynolds said. While the suit was filed in Oregon, it will be heard in federal court in Ohio as part of a joint case with other local governments.

In 2015, more than 27 percent of Clatsop County residents were prescribed opioids, according to the Oregon Health Authority. Curry County residents, by comparison, were prescribed at a 35 percent rate — the 74th largest figure of any county in the country.

“Clatsop County is up there in the number of prescriptions, which can lead to some negative consequences and addiction,” Reynolds said.

The lawsuit claims companies sold drugs dishonestly and failed to keep records in compliance with state and federal laws. The suit claims the companies became a public nuisance, facilitated abnormally dangerous activity, displayed gross negligence and engaged in fraud and deceit.

“The allegations are that the makers of the pharmaceuticals knew that they were harmful and created false advertising campaigns with false data to convince people of their safety in the hope of making a lot of money from the people becoming addicted,” Reynolds said.

Potential monetary damages will be determined during court proceedings. Plaintiffs are also hoping that restrictions will be placed on any false representations by drug companies, Reynolds said.

The county will not be required to pay any out-of-pocket legal fees, since attorneys representing the plaintiffs will cover all costs associated with the suit. In return, the attorneys will collect a 25 percent fee on any money awarded.

Reynolds said she didn’t see a “legal negative” to joining the litigation.

County commissioners gave a nod Wednesday to join the legal battle in a 3-0 vote, with some at the meeting comparing the suit to previous ones filed against tobacco companies.

“The fact that people have become so quickly addicted to these drugs is unconscionable, because I don’t believe that they were informed that this was a very real possibility,” Commissioner Sarah Nebeker said. “I know people who have been in the rift of that through the prescription drugs, and then they’re cut off and then they go to heroin.”

Commissioner Kathleen Sullivan abstained from the vote. Commissioner Lisa Clement was absent.

Sullivan lamented that counties were not given more time by the federal judge to consider whether to join. While Sullivan supports the aim of the lawsuit, it could potentially be a “double-edged sword” for people in chronic pain who need the drugs. “Because of the movement against these pharmaceutical companies and what not, a lot of these people are being led to a point where they’re not getting care,” she said.

Reynolds said, on the other hand, that a legal basis for providing opioids when needed would presumably still exist.

The lawsuit is expected to be filed in the Ohio court by early next week.

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