By Jane Smith
Beleaguered by increasing overdoses in the city and receiving little help from state and federal agencies, Delray Beach leaders plan to sue big drug makers. They want to offset the financial drain on their public safety budget of responding to overdoses.
In the first six months of 2017, drug overdoses rose 36.4 percent to 412 when compared with the first six months of 2016, according to the Delray Beach Police Department. Fatal overdoses were up by 27.6 percent to 37 in the same period, the data showed.
“Our city, indeed our state and country, struggle with an unprecedented crisis of people addicted to heroin and synthetic opioids,” Mayor Cary Glickstein said at the mid-July commission meeting. “No pathogen, virus, or war on this country’s soil has caused the death and destruction as the scourge of opioid addiction.”
Commissioners unanimously voted to work with the Boca Raton office of the Robbins Geller Rudman & Heller law firm. The agreement, which calls for no up-front tax dollars from Delray Beach and the law firm to share a portion of the proceeds if the city wins, was to be reviewed Aug. 2, a day after press time. The law firm’s proposed contingency agreement calls for a 23 percent share of the recovery, plus costs and expenses, for filing a lawsuit through a motion for summary judgment. Anything after that filing, the firm wants a 26.5 percent share.
Robbins Geller will represent the city against leading drug makers, distributors and possibly insurance companies. Delray Beach may be the first city in Florida to take such action. Palm Beach County is considering whether to file such a lawsuit.
At least four states and 12 cities have sued the pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors of narcotic pain relievers with claims similar to the tobacco litigation. Even Mike Moore, former Mississippi attorney general, has become involved in the opioid lawsuits, representing the state of Ohio.
As Mississippi attorney general in 1994, Moore filed the first state lawsuit against tobacco companies, claiming they harmed the public health by misrepresenting the dangers of smoking. He spearheaded national efforts that led to a $240 billion settlement.
Many public health officials think heroin users started when they were prescribed prescription pain relievers for injuries. When people become addicted to the prescription pain killers but can no longer get them legitimately, they often turn to street drugs such as heroin. The street drugs are often much cheaper.
Pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma was said to have made billions of dollars in profits from selling OxyContin, “a highly addictive and dangerous painkiller originally designed only for end-stage cancer pain where addiction didn’t matter, but marketed as nonaddictive,” Glickstein said.
In Florida, prescription pain killers in 2015 were written at the rate of 72 to 82 per 100 people, meaning that number of people were taking them at a given time, said Mark Dearman, a Boca Raton partner in the Robbins Geller law firm.
Dearman touted the firm’s big wins: $17 billion against Volkswagen, a $7.2 billion settlement against Enron Corp. and a $1.57 billion settlement against HSBC, a banking and financial services company.
Glickstein also railed against insurance companies for “paying billions in insurance claims” for counseling and urine tests “as if these were established medical procedures, which they are not, and which have, in fact, provided little in the way of sustained recovery for suffering addicts and desperate families.”
Nearby Boynton Beach has seen a more shocking rise in the numbers of overdoses and fatalities. For the first six months of 2017, overdoses more than doubled to 331 from the same period the year before, according to the Boynton Beach Police Department. Fatalities increased about 2.5 times, with 32 deaths, the data showed.
Mayor Steven Grant plans to talk to the city attorney so Boynton Beach doesn’t miss an opportunity to offset its costs of dealing with the opioid crisis.
“I want to talk with the city attorney and my commission colleagues about whether it makes more sense to pursue a case on our own or go to an outside counsel on a contingency basis,” he said.
The claims of negligence and deceptive marketing seem “like milquetoast when people are dying,” Delray Beach Vice Mayor Jim Chard said.
Dearman said, “We don’t have the ability to go after them criminally; we have the ability to go after them civilly.”
By Jane Smith