Read the lawsuit: Jennings County seeks funds for financial burden of drug epidemic

VERNON — Jennings County has become the latest of several Indiana counties and communities to file a federal lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors.

The 162-page document, submitted by attorney Richard E. Shevitz of Indianapolis, was filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

As plaintiff, the Jennings County Commissioners are seeking to recover funds to address what has been described as an overwhelming financial burden in dealing with the drug epidemic.

Without specifying exact damages, the suit seeks reimbursement for:

  • Medical care, therapy and related expenses.
  • Counseling, treatment and rehabilitation.
  • Treating infants born with opioid-related conditions.
  • Caring for children whose parents are addicted.
  • Law enforcement and public safety resources.

ln addition, the suit asks for attorney’s fees, as well as all other expenses related to the lawsuit.

“With the deaths, the overcrowding at the jail, the overdoses, we’re being backed into a corner that doesn’t leave us with a lot of choices,” Jennings County commissioner Matt Sporleder said.

Most of the damages were both foreseeable and caused by the defendants’ actions, the suit contends.

Manufacturer defendants named in the suit are Purdue Pharma, Cephalon Inc., Teva Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Noramco Inc., Endo Pharmaceuticals, Mallinckrodt PLC, Allergan PLC and Watson Pharmaceuticals.

Those companies sought to create a false perception of the safety and efficacy of opioids in the minds of medical professionals and the public, even going so far as to target veterans, the suit states.

Local impact

As an example of consequences, the suit states that non-fatal emergency rooms visits due to opioid overdoses rose in Jennings County from 39 in 2011 to 93 in 2015.

The rising numbers of opioid-related incidents have led to increased health care costs and a dramatic increase in social problems, including drug abuse and the commission of criminal acts, the suit states.

The litigation accuses drug manufacturers of deceptive marketing regarding appropriate opioid uses, risks and safety, as well as a failure to identify, report and stop suspicious orders.

Furthermore, the manufacturers allegedly encouraged more long-term and widespread usage of opioids, although they knew long-term use causes addiction, the lawsuit states.

Distributor defendants named in the litigation are AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and McKesson Corp.

Together with the manufacturers, the distributors are accused of violations that fall under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

Originally designed to combat organized crime, the RICO Act allows prosecution and civil penalties for racketeering activity performed as part of an ongoing criminal enterprise.

The Jennings County Commissioners were recruited by attorneys from the Cohen and Malad law office in Indianapolis to become part of the lawsuit, Sporleder said.

If the Indianapolis attorneys lose the case, county officials will not be liable for expenses, Sporleder said. But if they win, the county will receive a portion of the damages, he said.

String of lawsuits

Nearly a dozen Indiana cities and counties have filed lawsuits in recent days against opioid makers and distributors, claiming the companies have flooded their communities with the addictive painkillers and engaged in deceptive marketing campaigns that helped lead to a growing crisis.

The lawsuits, filed in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis, represent a growing effort to take on the opioid industry. Many of the lawsuits are nearly identical, claiming the manufacturers aggressively pushed highly addictive, dangerous opioids, and falsely represented to doctors that patients would only rarely succumb to drug addiction.

The complaints also say the companies aggressively advertised to and persuaded doctors to prescribe highly addictive painkillers, and “turned patients into drug addicts for their own corporate profit.”

Plaintiffs include Fort Wayne, Noblesville, Greenwood, Terre Haute, New Castle, Chandler and Atlanta, as well as Harrison County and Vigo County.

More will likely be filed in coming days, said Manuel Herceg, an attorney with Taft, Stettinius & Hollister LLP in Indianapolis, which is leading a consortium of about a half-dozen law firms engaged in the effort.

He said the suits eventually would be consolidated in a multi-district litigation effort in U.S. District Court in Cleveland, before Judge Dan Polster.

Forecasting the trend

The Jennings County lawsuit was filed one week after Bartholomew County Council member Mark Gorbett said during a public meeting that there would be an overwhelming number of suits being filed throughout Indiana in the months ahead regarding opioid drugs.

The former two-term sheriff said he anticipates drug manufacturers will eventually be held accountable by many units of government for opioid-related expenses.

Sporleder said he can only hope that Gorbett is right.

“I’m not even 80 percent certain they will be held accountable,” Sporleder said. “It’s all up to the courts.”

The Indianapolis Business Journal contributed to this report.

What's next?

No court date has been set in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana for a Jennings County opioid case.

As to whether county officials in Vernon will receive damages, “it could be two years before we know anything,” Jennings County commissioner Matt Sporleder said.

A more immediate concern to the commissioners is trying to secure the financial means to establish and maintain an addiction-rehabilitation center, Sporleder said.

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.