METHUEN — The city is taking on big pharmaceutical companies they say are responsible for dumping “millions of dollars' worth” of prescription opiates into the community in a lawsuit against several major manufacturers and distributors.

Methuen is joining a nationwide effort of lawsuits against big-name drug companies as the opioid epidemic continues its grip on communities large and small throughout the country, according to City Solicitor Richard D'Agostino. He said the effort is being spearheaded in Massachusetts by Rodman, Rodman & Sandman, based in Malden. D'Agostino said the firm contacted him last year and asked if Methuen was interested in being involved.

The "public nuisance" lawsuit was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Boston, D'Agostino said.

Citing the toll of “death and destruction and the ruined lives” from the ongoing epidemic, newly minted Methuen Mayor James Jajuga said the lawsuit is “something I think has to be done.”

“I absolutely think it's the right thing to do. Too many lives have been lost, too many people have suffered,” Jajuga said, adding there is a needed “accountability in my eyes on their part.”

The lawsuit goes after several large prescription opioid manufacturers and their related companies, as well as some of the country's largest wholesale drug distributors. It faults manufacturers for allegedly “aggressively” pushing “highly addictive, dangerous opioids” and “falsely representing to doctors” that patients would only “rarely” become addicted, going so far as to say the push to advertise these drugs “turned patients into drug addicts for their own corporate profit.”

It also claims wholesale distributors "breached legal duties" to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious activity in the size and frequency of prescription opioid shipments.

The lawsuit says the “widespread abuse of opioids has resulted in a national epidemic of opioid overdose deaths and addictions.”

"It's a big, big problem and it calls out for a lawsuit of this magnitude," Jajuga said.

Newly elected City Council Chairwoman Jennifer Kannan also voiced her support for the lawsuit.

“It is the pharmaceutical drug manufacturers and wholesale drug distributors who failed in their legal obligation to notify the Drug Enforcement Administration of suspicious orders, even as the number of pills flowing into our county rose and rose,” Kannan said in a statement. 

Like many communities throughout the commonwealth and beyond, Methuen has been grappling with a rising number of opioid overdoses and related deaths in recent years. The city saw 14 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2016, up from 7 in 2015 and 13 in 2014, according to the most recent state data from the Department of Public Health, released in November.

Essex County has seen some of the higher instances of opioid-related overdose deaths in the state since 2000, with 288 deaths recorded countywide in 2016, according to the data. Opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts declined 10 percent in the first nine months of 2017 compared to the same time period the year prior, reports said.

In Methuen, according to the lawsuit, opioids have also surpassed alcohol as the reason people in the city enter substance abuse treatment.

Beyond the human toll of the opioid epidemic, Jajuga said the proliferation of prescription opioids has led to “enormous financial costs” for Methuen and other communities, from hiring people to help those battling addiction, to opening more treatment facilities, to providing increased education to help combat improper opioid use. 

The lawsuit names five large manufacturers of prescription opioids and their related companies and three of the country's largest wholesale drug distributors as defendants. They include: Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Cephalon Inc., Johnson & Johnson and Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc.

McKesson Corporation, a pharmaceutical distributor, is also listed. McKesson has a Methuen location at 9 Aegean Drive. Jajuga said the lawsuit is “not aimed specifically at a Methuen company” but is aimed at the company overall.

 

To aid their case, the city has hired law firms whom it claims are “experienced at holding the powerful pharmaceutical industry accountable.” The firms include Barod & Budd; Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor; Greene Ketchum Bailey Farrell & Tweel; Hill, Peterson, Carper, Bee & Deitzler; McHugh Fuller Law Group; Rodman, Rodman & Sandman; and Sweeney Merrigan Law. 

It is unclear how much the law firms will be paid.

Ultimately, Jajuga said the city is hoping for “recognition that something was done wrong,” and that in the future, companies will “think about people before profits.”

The city is also hoping for “some relief for the costs that are being borne because of this problem,” Jajuga said.

Follow Lisa Kashinsky on Twitter @lisakashinsky.

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