Thurston County has filed a lawsuit against prescription opioid manufacturers and wholesale distributors, saying they are to blame for the “epidemic levels” of opioid addiction in Thurston County.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court seeking an undetermined amount of money, argues the defendants provided false and misleading information to doctors and patients about the safety of prescription opioids over the past two decades.
Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim said the aim of the lawsuit is to hold opioid manufacturers and distributors accountable for creating “the worst human-caused epidemic in history.”
“Opioid addiction has reached epidemic levels in Thurston County and opioid-related deaths have increased dramatically over the past decade. We believe these companies directly contributed to the creation of this epidemic,” Tunheim said in a news release.
Among the defendants named in the lawsuit are Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin; Endo Pharmaceuticals, the maker of Percocet; and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson that makes patches that release the painkiller fentanyl.
The complaint alleges they violated the Washington Consumer Protection Act and the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, and that their conduct constitutes a public nuisance, negligence, gross negligence and unjust enrichment under state law.
According to the complaint, at least 106 residents of Thurston County died from opioid-related overdoses from 2012 to 2016.
County officials say the rise of prescription opioid use in Thurston County was followed closely by a dramatic rise in heroin use; last year, about half of the people who used the county’s needle exchange program reported their primary drug was heroin.
Heroin and opioids are both derived from opium and have similar effects. When people become addicted to opioids, they frequently have trouble maintaining a supply of the expensive prescription drugs, so they turn to heroin, which is much cheaper on the black market.
“The opioid epidemic simply could not have become the crisis it is today without an enormous supply of pills,” according to the complaint.
Hundreds of states, cities and counties have filed similar lawsuits against drug makers and distributors, including in Washington. Thurston County is represented by the Seattle-based law firm Keller Rohrback, which also has filed suits on behalf of King, Pierce and Skagit counties and the cities of Tacoma, Mount Vernon, Burlington and Sedro-Woolley.
Keller Rohrback approached Thurston County about joining the legal battle, and last month, Thurston County commissioners approved a resolution supporting the lawsuit, saying the county has incurred significant costs responding to opioid-related crimes and medical emergencies.
Scott Cushing, Thurston County's senior civil deputy prosecuting attorney, said, "We’re just trying to hold the manufacturers and distributors liable for the harms they’ve inflicted on this community."