By MICHAEL PUFFER
WATERBURY — Leaders from 25 Connecticut cities and towns traveled to Waterbury City Hall on Thursday to hear that city’s Mayor Neil M. O’Leary’s offer of a joint lawsuit against manufacturers of prescription opioid painkillers.
O’Leary expects most will join. Mayors and leaders from Naugatuck, Oxford, Wolcott, Roxbury, New Milford, Bristol, and Bridgeport have already agreed to participate, according to O’Leary and his lawyers.
Bristol’s Mayor Ken Cockayne said O’Leary had spoken to him about Waterbury’s intent to file suit about two months ago and had asked if the city wanted to take part as well.
O’Leary forwarded Cockayne the complaint, the Bristol mayor said, and he had Bristol’s lawyers review it. After the attorneys looked at the complaint and reviewed the facts within the complaint, they said the city should participate.
Cockayne said opioid abuse is a nation-wide problem, and it’s one that has not left Bristol unscathed. It has affected people of all walks of life and destroys families, he said. “We all know someone that this has affected.”
The suit’s intent, said Cockayne, is to fight back against the over-prescription of these drugs—which often starts off innocently enough as a prescription for pain killers following surgery.
Cockayne said participation in the suit will cost Bristol nothing, other than the time and effort to do the research to determine the cost of opioid abuse to the city.
However, said Cockayne, if the plaintiffs win the suit—- after the attorneys receive their cut of the settlement— Bristol will get a percentage of the settlement along with the other participating municipalities.
So far, Waterbury’s name stands alone on a legal complaint that went out to defendants Thursday.
It alleges that drug makers engaged in a coordinated and sophisticated campaign to mask the risks of opioid medications, while exaggerating benefits to create massive profits. Among other tactics, drug makers pushed opioid use for more common ailments, including back pain, arthritis and headaches, according to the suit.
Two drug companies reached Thursday say they’re committed to working with medical professionals and others to ensure safe use of their products.
In 2016, 917 people overdosed on drugs, mostly opioids, in Connecticut, according to the suit.
The suit names as defendants three doctors involved with promoting opioids nationally, along with drug makers Perdu Pharma of Stamford, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries of Israel, Cephalone Inc., Johnson & Johnson, Endo Health Solutions, along with subsidiaries of these companies.
Teva and Perdue emailed responses, both saying their committed to appropriate promotion and use of their products. Teva spokeswoman Doris Saltkill said her company has programs to educate providers and patients on safe use, and is eager to work with regulators, medical providers and public officials.
“While we vigorously deny the allegations, we share local officials’ concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions,” said Purdue spokesman Robert Josephson.
Josephson noted his company’s “OxyContin” product accounts for only 2 percent of the analgesic prescription market nationally, yet Purdue is an “industry leader” in the development of abuse deterrent medicines.
Paul Hanly, chairman of Simmons Hanly Conroy, said the company has been making the same claim— falsely — for years.
This is the first case of its kind against drug makers originating in Connecticut, but the same argument is being made in courtrooms in other states.
Hanly said he expects the suit to return “hundreds of millions” of dollars to affected communities. The lawyers are taking the case up on a contingency basis and will claim one-third of any proceeds, O’Leary said.
As of July 21, Simmons Hanly Conroy had filed similar cases on behalf of eight New York counties, with one more pending. The company also represents an Illinois county and two parishes in Louisiana.
Connecticut Attorney General George C. Jepsen’s office is considering similar action.
“The Office of the Attorney General is undertaking an investigation to evaluate whether unlawful practices have occurred in the marketing and distribution of prescription opioids,” spokesman Samuel Carmody wrote in response to questions Thursday.
Carmody said the office can’t comment on the status of the investigation, but Jepsen regards it as a “top priority” and is “committing significant resources to it,” while also coordinating with colleagues across the country.
As for when the suit is expected to reach court and be resolved, Cockayne said the suit is very new. A settlement is not likely around the corner. He said similar cases have taken years to resolve.
Bristol Observer editions editor Mike Chaiken contributed to the story.