Danbury law firm joins movement vs. drug companies on opioids

December 10, 2017

A Danbury law firm has joined a growing national effort punish the drug industry for its role in the opioid epidemic.

Ventura Law is asking town and cities across Fairfield County to join a potential suit against the pharmaceutical companies to recoup the costs of combatting the crisis.

“We feel we have a moral obligation to rectify the wrongs and take a stand against the pharmaceutical companies for creating the problem in this way,” said Kelly Fitzpatrick, a partner with Ventura.

With the state on track to lose 1,000 people to accidental drug overdose deaths by the end of the year, public officials are scrambling to fund programs to help those addicted to opiates.

Ventura is working with a Nashville-based firm, Branstetter Stranch & Jennings, which is representing counties across Tennessee in suits against the pharmaceutical industry.

The effort is just part of a nationwide campaign against the pharmaceutical industry.

Attorneys general in 41 states, including Connecticut, have mounted a joint effort against the companies. In September, the states issued subpoenas seeking information about how prescription opioids were marketed and sold.

And earlier this year, the city of Waterbury sued several drug companies, including Stamford-based Purdue Pharma, which manufactures the painkiller OxyContin. About 20 other Connecticut communities, including Danbury and New Milford, are considering joining the suit, led by the Simmons Hanly Conroy firm from New York City.

In its suit, Ventura hopes to show that drug companies falsely advertised opioids, downplaying their addictive nature, and that they were “unjustly enriched at the expense of local communities,” Fitzpatrick said in a presentation last week to the Brookfield Board of Selectmen.

Fitzpatrick said the aim of the suit is to teach the pharmaceutical companies a lesson as well as gain money for participating municipalities through a settlement.

“It’s to recoup the money that was lost by the towns related to the opioid crisis and to be equipped to handle the crest of the wave that is essentially coming from the crisis,” she said to the selectmen.

Brookfield First Selectman Steve Dunn said the town will decide whether to join the suit after researching how much emergency services has spent because of the crisis.

Dunn added that bigger cities likely have spent more and would have more to gain from the suit, but he agreed with Ventura that the pharmaceutical companies’ negligence has worsened the crisis.

“It’s a huge problem because people are getting addicted to these things without even knowing they’re getting addicted,” he said. “It runs across all ages, groups.

“It’s scary as hell,” he added.

Ventura also has approached Danbury, Ridgefield, Bethel, Westport, Stratford and other area towns about joining its suit, but none have yet agreed to join the suit. Until they do, Fitzpatrick said, she cannot say how much money the communities have spent combatting the epidemic.

But in her presentation to Brookfield, she suggested that municipalities should think about what they have spent on drug treatment facilities or programs and opioid-related costs to social services agencies, the school system, the health department and emergency services.

The suit also seeks compensation for costs of dealing with infants exposed to opiates in the womb, said Gerard Stranch, a managing partner with the Tennessee firm. Such infants are often addicted at birth, and are diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS.

The number of Connecticut babies diagnosed with NAS more than doubled from 2003 to 2014, according to a report from the state Department of Health.

Hospital costs for newborns with NAS were $66,700 on average, compared to $3,500 for healthy babies, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.The state health department estimates that effective prevention would save more than $8.7 million in hospitalization costs statewide in 2014 .

All this means the epidemic will continue to cost municipalities, even if opiates disappeared overnight, Stranch said.

“You still are going to have a 20- to 30-year tale of dealing with the children who were born with NAS, in addition to the addiction and the other problems you’re going to have to deal with,” Stranch said.

Funding is needed for early intervention and special education for children with NAS, Stranch said.

“These are true innocents,” he said. “These kids didn’t do anything to deserve this. It’s going to affect every portion of their life.”

Fitzpatrick said joining the suit would not cost the municipalities anything, nor would they be liable if the case were unsuccessful. If the case were successful, 25 percent of the settlement would go to Ventura.

Bethel First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker said he has asked police to estimate how much the department has spent on training first responders and equipping officers with Naloxone, a life-saving drug that can prevent an overdose death.

Knickerbocker said the Board of Selectmen likely will decide whether to join the Ventura or Waterbury suit at a meeting later this month.

Ridgefield, however, has declined to join either suit.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi has long been vocal about addressing the opioid crisis, but he worries that a lawsuit could take five to seven years to conclude, while people struggling with addiction need more immediate help.

“We could lose—in a five-to-seven-year lawsuit—5,000 to 7,000 people,” Marconi. “We need to do something now.”

Marconi wants to focus instead on education and prevention programs in Ridgefield and surrounding communities, even if it means working with the companies that says caused the crisis.

One example is a pilot program being developed by the Housatonic Valley Coalition Against Substance Abuse along with other regional action councils and a pharmaceutical company.

Allison Fulton, executive director at HVCASA, said the program is intended to educate people about opiates and prevent addiction. She said the program could be used in schools and other community groups across the state and country.

Drug companies, such as Purdue Pharma, have previously given HVCASA money to support awareness programs.

Fulton said she understands why towns are tempted to sue the companies. But HVCASA’s first priority is prevention.

“We want to see something people can take action on tomorrow, the next day, because too many people are dying,” Fulton said. “We can’t wait around for lawsuits.”

Marconi also predicts that towns would not get much money from any settlement in any case.

“We need action now,” Marconi said, “not the promise of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”