Miami joined a national avalanche of cities, counties and states filing lawsuits aimed at opioid manufacturers and distributors, blaming them for fueling an overdose epidemic estimated to claim about 115 lives a day.
Miami officials filed the civil lawsuit in Miami-Dade County on Monday, alleging deception and false marketing by a number of manufacturers and distributors of prescription painkillers, including Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals and Walgreens.
The lawsuit alleges the companies created a public nuisance by falsely marketing opioids and unlawfully supplying them in Miami, unjustly enriching them at the expense of the city and its residents.
“We believe the pharmaceutical industry knowingly inflicted a great burden on the people of the city of Miami and our nation,” Miami City Manager Emilio González said in a press release announcing the litigation.
Miami joins about 250 cities, counties and states that have sued opioid makers, wholesalers, distributors and marketers accusing the companies of misleading doctors and the public by aggressively advertising the drugs as non-addictive and safe.
Among the South Florida local governments that have filed opioid litigation are Broward and Palm Beach counties and the city of Deerfield Beach. Miami-Dade commissioners also have debated filing opioid litigation. And Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said in January that the state is "prepared to go to litigation" if drug makers refuse to negotiate a settlement.
Drug makers, distributors and pharmacies have denied the claims and called for the lawsuits to stop until research is completed assessing the long-term risks and benefits of opioids.
Bob Josephson, a spokesman for Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin and the lead defendant in Miami's lawsuit, said in a prepared statement that the company has been working to find solutions to the opioid crisis, which has fueled a spike in drug overdose deaths, including in Florida.
"We must balance patient access to FDA-approved medicines with collaborative efforts to solve this public health challenge," Josephson said. "Although our products account for less than 2 percent of the total opioid prescriptions, as a company, we’ve distributed the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, developed three of the first four FDA-approved opioid medications with abuse-deterrent properties and partner with law enforcement to ensure access to naloxone."
Naloxone is a medication that can rapidly reverse overdoses.
Most of the opioid litigation by cities, counties and states has been consolidated into a single case in federal court in Ohio.
But Miami’s lawsuit was filed in a Florida state court with the intent of giving the city greater clout and potentially securing a bigger financial settlement, said Mike Eidson, a partner with the law firm Colson Hicks Eidson, which is working with Miami’s city attorney and other firms on the case.
"We would just get lost in the whole shuffle up there in Cleveland," Eidson said. "If it’s not necessary and we can keep it here, we can work up the damages and get the maximum amount that we can identify for the city of Miami without going through … the procedure up there."
The city's lawsuit lists 17 defendants, including drug makers, mass distributors of prescription drugs and Walgreens pharmacies.
The 134-page complaint alleges that drug representatives from Purdue Pharma promoted "abuse-deterrent formulations" to Miami doctors with false promises that the drugs were safer than other opioids.
The complaint also accuses Insys Therapeutics, which marketed a highly potent opioid approved only for cancer pain, of paying nearly $90,000 in speaking fees to a Miami pain doctor, who is not named in the complaint. Walgreens pharmacies are accused of failing to stop the diversion of opioids for illicit use.
Eidson said Miami's legal goals are threefold. Get drug makers to stop marketing opioids as safe and non-addictive. Compensate the city for financial damages related to the opioid epidemic, including increased policing and medical costs. And develop a recovery program to help addicts kick opioids.
"To do that," Eidson said of the recovery goal, "you’re going to need a very sophisticated plan that we want them [the plaintiffs] to pay for that will take people off the addiction. ... They’ve made billions of dollars, so they're going to give some back."