Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim filed suit against 12 drug producers and three promoters of the manufacturers’ products December 21 in Lake County Court in Waukegan to hold them accountable for their role in the growing opioid epidemic across the country.
Though Lake County filed its own lawsuit, Nerheim, joined with state’s attorneys from DuPage, Kane, Will and McHenry counties to show solidarity in their resolve to end the crisis.
Nerheim made fighting the opioid epidemic a top priority when he took office five years ago. “The impact and effect of the five collar counties surrounding Chicago standing shoulder to shoulder shows we’re all serious about this,” said Nerheim in a DailyNorthShore interview. “By showing this we hope more will follow suit.”
Filing suit along with Nerheim as state’s attorney are Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran and Lake County Coroner Howard Cooper.
Defendants include Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Cephalon, Johnson & Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Endo Health Solutions, and companies affiliated with them. The American Academy of Pain Medicine, American Geriatrics Society and American Pain Society are named too.
Suits Are Part of Nationwide Movement
The five counties are part of a growing effort by local government to rein in drug manufacturers and hold them accountable for their actions. More than 200 governmental units have filed suit in federal court with dozens more doing the same in state court, according to a December 20 New York Times story. Attorneys general from 41 states are working together to find solutions as well.
The suit claims the drug companies engaged in a “campaign of unfairly, deceptively and fraudulently marketing prescription opioids in Lake County,” according to language contained in the complaint filed in court.
The three non-manufacturing defendants are accused of working with the drug makers to “promote opioids to doctors and patients, including elderly patients, as appropriate and safe for long-term use to treat chronic pain,” when that was not the case, according to the complaint.
While much of the litigation Nerheim oversees are criminal prosecutions, this is a civil lawsuit seeking money from the drug companies and injunctive relief to prevent the defendants from engaging in the conduct alleged in the lawsuit. He thinks civil litigation is the best way to deal with businesses that are harming the public.
“Our job is to hold people accountable for their actions,” said Nerheim. “We want to stop them from what they’re doing. We can’t put Purdue in jail,” he added referring to one of the corporate defendants. “The best thing to cut into their profits, make it too expensive for them to do this.”
Should the litigation yield results, Nerheim said, the drug companies rather than Lake County taxpayers will be paying for what he calls their misdeeds. Right now the county pays for treatment programs, the costs for law enforcement and in some cases for health care professionals to treat people among other things.
A victory in the lawsuit or a settlement will help shift some of the cost from the taxpayers to the drug companies, according to Nerheim. He said the need is growing because more people need treatment than the county has facilities. He cited the A Way Out a program as an example.
A Way Out allows drug users seeking treatment to walk into a police station, say they want treatment and be transported to a facility without fear of arrest, according to Nerheim.
“We are a resource-rich county and we’re running out of facilities. This all costs money and right now it is on the taxpayers,” he said, adding that a successful lawsuit will force drug companies to help pay.
While all five collar counties are taking action simultaneously, Nerheim said Lake County is taking a slightly different route. While the other four counties hired a private law firm to prosecute their claims, Nerheim said the Lake County state’s attorney’s office is leading the charge with the assistance of outside lawyers with expertise in the field.
Helping out with the case are attorneys from the Washington D.C. law firm of Motley Rice, LLC, and Highland Park-based Baizer Kolar P.C., according to Nerheim.
“I like the job they did helping Chicago in a similar case,” Nerheim said of Motley Rice. “It’s important to have Lake County lawyers involved too,” he added referring to Robert S. Baizer and Joseph E. Kolar. “They’ve been sworn in as special assistant state’s attorneys for this case.”