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Mora County sues opioid manufacturers, distributors

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Mora County has filed suit against numerous major pharmaceutical manufacturers, accusing them of knowingly overdistributing the drugs at the center of the nation’s opioid crisis.

The suit, which the county filed in state District Court on Aug. 28, has the same concept as recently undertaken litigation in other states including Ohio, Oregon, Connecticut and New York. It’s the first suit against opioid distributors filed by a New Mexico county.

Mora County attorney Michael Aragon coordinated on the 230-page lawsuit with Albuquerque-based attorney Joshua Conaway, whose firm specializes in wrongful death and personal injury cases against large corporations. Also, Conaway said he and his firm have partnered with a New York firm, Napoli Shkolnik PLLC, which is behind several similar New York and Ohio suits.

Conaway said Mora County is taking a “courageous” first step for the state.

“This case is about one thing: corporate greed,” the nearly 230-page suit starts. It says the drug companies and a group of physicians who have promoted the painkillers have “put their desire for profits above the health and well-being of Mora County consumers.”

The suit maintains that the companies have violated several laws, including the New Mexico Unfair Trade Practices Act. The companies have known the risks of opioids but instead promote the drugs for long-term use and downplay the risks to “expand the market for opioids and realize blockbuster profits,” the suit states.

The long list of defendants named in the suit include OxyContin distributor Purdue Pharma, Johnson and Johnson and Percocet distributor Endo Health Solutions.

Former Las Cruces doctor Pawan Kuman Jain, who pleaded guilty in 2016 to unlawfully providing opioids to New Mexico residents, is listed with four others from out of state whom the suit accuses of promoting opioids.

The suit maintains that Mora County residents traveled downstate to get drugs from Jain. When he pleaded guilty to two counts in February 2016, the former neurologist was facing nearly 80 unlawful dispensing charges and about 60 health care fraud charges.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, Jain’s charges were connected to four patients’ deaths. He has not yet been sentenced, according to court documents, but apparently remains in custody.

In recent news reports, some of the opioid manufacturing companies listed in Mora County’s suit have denied wrongdoing and say they advocate for the patients’ best interest.

Following the filing of a similar lawsuit in Waterbury, Conn., Purdue Pharma said in a Thursday statement to the Hartford Courant: “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.”

Mora County Commission Chairman Paula Garcia said the county’s public health officials met with the commission about Mora’s “disproportionately” high overdose rates more than a year ago.

According to the state’s Department of Health, the county’s overdose rate was one of the state’s highest between 2011 and 2015 – 47.3 per 100,000 people. Mora County, with about 4,500 residents, had 14 drug overdose deaths in 2015, according to the suit.

The suit also says that in 2015 Mora County had 141 emergency room admissions related to heroin, a drug cited as popular with opioid addicts because it’s now less expensive and has a similar high.

Garcia said the county’s small size leaves it with little resources to combat the opioid crisis on its own. “In a rural area like ours, we need to get creative to how we’re going to respond to this,” she said.

In the last few months, Garcia said, county attorney Aragon made the commission aware of legal options, like the lawsuits filed elsewhere, that potentially could curb Mora County opioid abuse by going after the drug makers.

“There seems to be an overabundance of these drugs being manufactured, distributed and prescribed,” said Garcia. “If that’s happening and it’s hurt people in our community, those corporations should be held accountable.”

Conaway said damage amounts will be proven in the litigation. The county doesn’t have an estimated or desired figure in mind, according to Aragon.

Garcia said if any money is gained, it would go toward prevention, education and treatment programs for what she describes as an all-ages issue hurting her county’s future.

“I know parents who have had teenagers affected by this epidemic, and it’s really devastating,” said Garcia. “We need to be on the forefront of trying to address this problem.”


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