Gaston County has joined the growing ranks of local governments across the United States to sue companies that make and distribute opioids. Attorneys retained by the county filed the lawsuit this week in U.S. District Court in Charlotte.
“This is a nationwide epidemic, but we’re trying to solve it from a Gaston County perspective,” County Commission Chairman Chad Brown said Monday at a news conference.
The complaint, which is about 160 pages long, alleges several companies are in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and North Carolina’s Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act and have demonstrated negligence, misrepresentation, and fraud.
“We are pursuing the named defendant manufacturers of opioids for their overstating the benefits of chronic opioid use and minimizing or trivializing or — outright, at times, we contend — denying the risk associated with chronic use of opioids,” said Garry Whitaker, an attorney from Winston-Salem whose law firm is one of several representing Gaston County in the lawsuit.
Use of similar legislation is a growing trend in the fight against what the federal government has labeled the “opioid crisis.” In December, the state of North Carolina sued the manufacturer of a fentanyl-based cancer medicine, accusing the company of paying kickbacks to doctors for prescribing the drug for other uses. Smaller local governments have also taken legal action against opioid manufacturers. Earlier this year, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians filed suit in a federal court in Asheville against more than 20 pharmaceutical companies, according to local news. Last year, Buncombe, New Hanover and Rockingham counties also filed similar lawsuits.
But Whitaker claims that the litigation Gaston is joining — part of a multijurisdictional lawsuit spanning five states — goes an extra step in adding distribution companies to the complaint.
“The drug distributors that we’ve named have reported much more in sales, almost two times more — over $480 billion in sales just from the three big drug distributors,” Whitaker said. “… We think that’s a very critical key to this litigation, and that’s why we are pursuing it most aggressively.”
There are currently about 15 cities and counties represented in the litigation.
“It does not cost the county anything,” Whitaker said. “… If there’s no recovery, then there’s no fee, and we bear the cost. In terms of what damages are going forward, we’re working with the county officials to determine what it will cost going forward.”
Accidental opioid overdoses killed North Carolinians at a rate of roughly 12 people for every 100,000 from 2012-2016, according to the state. In Gaston County, the rate was about 20 out of 100,000.
In 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 57 people in Gaston died in opioid-related incidents, according to the county. There are even more close calls.
“In addition to the deaths … in the past 12 months, EMS has treated 399 opiate-overdose patients,” said Gaston Emergency Medical Services Chief Mark Lamphiear. “… That number is growing, and we also see people getting closer and closer to the brink, so to speak, when we’re having to breathe for them and give them Narcan to bring them back.”
Narcan is a potentially life-saving medication that can be administered to stop the effects of an opioid overdose.
At a summit on opioid abuse earlier this month, Gaston’s Department of Health and Human Services reported that the county had the fourth-highest number of heroin overdoses and the highest number of prescription overdoses in North Carolina from 1999-2014. In 2016, more than 15 million opioid pills were issued in the county, according to the department. The number was even higher, about 20 million, in 2015.
During the news conference, attorney Paul Coates of Winston-Salem, who has been retained by the county, pointed to a CDC map outlining the rates of opioid prescriptions in North Carolina counties.
“When you pop up Gaston County, the number of prescriptions is 119 prescriptions per year per 100 people,” Coates said. “For every man, woman, and child in Gaston County, you have 1.2 prescriptions of opioids… Those pills get diverted into the illegal markets and then get people addicted, and people are dying. It’s a national crisis, but it has local tragedy implications.”