Towns follow Waterbury’s lead with lawsuit

NAUGATUCK — The borough will join a growing number of municipalities in a lawsuit against drug companies.

The Board of Mayor and Burgess voted unanimously on Tuesday to join Waterbury in a lawsuit against manufacturers of prescription opioid painkillers.

The motion alleges that the companies, through an aggressive marketing campaign, sought to and did change long-standing medical practices that dictated opioids should be used short-term and for terminal illnesses. The promotion of opioids led directly to increased costs for patients, health care insurers, and the payers, such as the borough, the claim alleges.

“This lawsuit is design to recover monetary damages. You may ask what are our monetary damages. Well, our healthcare costs are up, our workman’s compensation is up, our police costs are up. This lawsuit is designed to cover those costs but also to deter and eliminate some of the conduct that has gone on in the past,” Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess said.

The motion to join the lawsuit stemmed from a meeting between Waterbury and more than two dozen local municipalities on Aug. 31.

“We met with the mayors and first selectmen from other towns and there was strong interest in supporting Waterbury’s efforts,” Hess said.

In the lawsuit, Waterbury 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.

Law firm Simmons Hanly Conroy filed an 82-page complaint with the Waterbury Superior Court on behalf of the City of Waterbury.

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.

In 2016, 917 people overdosed on drugs, mostly opioids, in Connecticut, according to the suit.

Hess said there were eight people who died from accidental overdoses of opioids last year in Naugatuck.

“There is probably no one in this room that doesn’t have a friend, contact or acquaintance that has experienced this problem. It is a massive problem that is going unaddressed and it has to end,” Hess said.

Hess said the lawsuit is a contingent fee case, which means the municipalities involved do not have to put any money forward. If the municipalities prevail in the lawsuit, the law firm receives one-third of the settlement money, Hess said.

Burgess Rocky Vitale questioned whether the lawsuit is going after the right people.

“This is kind of like going after an auto company because I was speeding and crashed my car. It was my fault, not the auto company’s fault,” Vitale said. “I just don’t know if they are going after the right people. Why aren’t they going after the doctors that are prescribing this?”

Hess said one of the claims in the lawsuit is that the drug companies used fake science and promoted fake numbers to make people think opioids were safe.

“Before there was fake news in the world there was fake science,” Hess said. “It seems clear that the information they were peddling was wrong. It was done in a fraudulent and deceptive manner. We, and all towns that join, have a very strong legal argument. We intend to pursue it.”

Burgess Carl Herb compared the lawsuit to one filed against cigarette manufacturers.

“I liken this to tobacco where companies spiked the nicotine in them to addict you more,” Herb said. “This is a good lawsuit.”

Prospect plans to join the lawsuit as well, while officials in Beacon Falls are contemplating their next step.

Beacon Falls First Selectman Christopher Bielik said in a phone interview last week the town is aware of the lawsuit. He plans to seek the opinion of the town’s legal counsel on whether it would make sense for Beacon Falls to join the lawsuit. Any decision would be discussed and voted on by the Board of Selectmen, he added.

Prospect Mayor Robert Chatfield said in a phone interview the town had a representative at the meeting on Aug. 31 in Waterbury and plans to join the lawsuit.

Chatfield said the main reason the town wants to join is because of how pervasive the drug is, even in smaller communities such as Prospect.

“It’s every place. It doesn’t matter who you are, how old you are, what your race is, or what your level of education is. It takes everybody. Nobody is exempt,” Chatfield said.

Elio Gugliotti and the Republican-American contributed to this article.