Somerville has become the latest Massachusetts community to turn to the courts in its fight against the state’s opioid crisis.
The city filed a lawsuit in Middlesex Superior Court on Wednesday against 19 opioid manufacturers and distributors, alleging negligence and fraud, according to a statement from Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone’s office.
In the statement, the city blasted the companies “for their alleged deceptive and illegal promotion of opioids and failure to investigate, report, maintain effective control, and take steps to terminate suspicious orders of the highly addictive prescription drugs.”
The lawsuit names some of the country’s biggest drug companies and distributors, including Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson as well as the Walgreens pharmacy chain, as defendants, according to the complaint.
According to Somerville, there were 21 opioid-related deaths in 2016, 17 in 2015, 15 in 2014, and 11 in 2013.
In filing the complaint, Somerville joins dozens of other Massachusetts municipalities, including Boston, as well as the state attorney general, that have filed lawsuits targeting the painkiller industry.
In a statement, Purdue vigorously denied the city’s allegations and said the company shares “the city’s concerns about the opioid crisis.”
In its complaint, the city “disregards basic facts about Purdue’s prescription opioid medications,” according to Purdue’s statement. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved OxyContin and other Purdue opioid medications as “safe and effective for their intended use,” according to the company.
“The city claims Purdue acted improperly by communicating with prescribers about scientific and medical information that FDA has expressly considered and continues to approve,” read the company’s statement. “We believe it is inappropriate for the city to substitute its judgment for the judgment of the regulatory, scientific, and medical experts at FDA.”
Purdue has made headlines in recent days, as an ongoing lawsuit brought by the Massachusetts attorney general’s office accuses the drug company and eight members of the Sackler family that owns it of fueling the opioid crisis by deceptively selling OxyContin.
Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a Johnson & Johnson company that is named in the suit, said in a statement its “actions in the marketing and promotion of these medicines were appropriate and responsible.”
“The labels for our prescription opioid pain medicines provide information about their risks and benefits, and the allegations made against our company are baseless and unsubstantiated,” read the statement.
A Walgreens spokesman declined to comment on the suit.
The lawsuit accuses the defendants of negligence and negligent misrepresentation, fraud and fraudulent misrepresentation, creating a public nuisance, and unjust enrichment.
“Our investigation into the opioid epidemic in Somerville points directly to these opioid manufacturers and distributors who we believe acted dishonestly and without compassion for patients, instead placing profits above all else,” Curtatone said in the statement.
In 2016, emergency medical services personnel in Somerville administered 197 doses of Narcan, the antidote to opioid overdoses, the city said. That number was four times the amount of doses administered in any year before that, according to the city.
Curtatone called for “the bad actors within the opioid industry” to be held to account.
“For Somerville, that starts today,” he said.
The suit also alleges that a handful of companies violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a federal law commonly referred to as RICO that is most often associated with organized crime enterprises. The city asserts that companies knew that opioids were highly addictive and unsafe, and effectively formed an enterprise and engaged in a scheme to unlawfully increase their profits and sales.
“Through our investigation, we have evidence that these opioid manufacturers and distributors created the extraordinary crisis we are experiencing in Somerville,” said City Solicitor Francis X. Wright Jr., in a statement.
Somerville, in its lawsuit, is looking for an injunction that would block the defendants from engaging in practices that “caused the public nuisance.” The city also wants the defendants to pay damages.