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Lawyers spar over who is to blame for New York State's opioid scourge

Suffolk County is the lead plaintiff in a suit that contends national pharmacies and a network of family-owned manufacturers should be held financially liable for New York's opioid addiction crisis.

Almost every county and many cities in New

Almost every county and many cities in New York State seek to hold manufacturers and pharmacies liable for the opioid crisis. Photo Credit: AP/Toby Talbot

Attorneys filled every seat in a Central Islip courtroom Tuesday to argue whether national pharmacies and a network of family-owned drug manufacturers should be held financially liable for the scourge of opioid addiction across New York State.

The arguments were the latest step concerning dozens of lawsuits by almost every county and many cities in the state that have been consolidated before state Supreme Court Justice Jerry Gargiulo. After he resolves pretrial issues common to all the litigation, the suits will return to their home counties for trials. Suffolk County, the first to file such a suit, is the lead plaintiff.

The daylong arguments had 19 attorneys from around the country seated at various times at the counsel tables. Lawyers for the pharmacy chains, companies owned by the Connecticut-based Sackler family and the family itself argued why they should not be held responsible for the blight of addiction. These suits are among thousands nationwide that claim the Sacklers and their companies made billions of dollars while marketing the drugs heavily and lying about their addictive effects.

Benjamin Mizer of Washington, D.C., arguing on behalf of Walmart, Rite Aid, CVS, Walgreens and other pharmacies, said his clients had no relationship with the counties and therefore could not be held responsible for the epidemic. And the pharmacies weren't the ones that flooded the market with OxyContin and similar pills, he said.

"They only dispensed pursuant to prescription by physicians," he said.

But Andrea Bierstein of Manhattan, one of the attorneys for the counties, said the pharmacies are also wholesalers of dangerous drugs, and had a duty to monitor suspicious prescribing practices. The corporations failed to do that and made it impossible for individual stores to report such issues, she said, creating a public nuisance for local governments to handle.

"They created costs we had to pay," Bierstein said. "They put those costs to us."

Gregory Joseph, the Manhattan attorney for several Sackler family members and the trust they controlled, had a different objection to the suits.

"You can't sue a trust," he said. And if there is no specific claim that family members acting as trustees did something wrong, they can't be sued either, he said. If the corporations did something wrong, they're the ones that should be held liable, Joseph said.

Sackler family members own and run the corporations involved, including Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma and Rhodes Pharmaceuticals and Rhodes Technologies, both based in Rhode Island.

Joseph said shareholders can't be held responsible for corporate actions.

But Thomas Sheridan of Manhattan, another attorney for the counties, said in this case there is no distinction between the Sackler family members and the companies they ran.

"The Sackler family owned and controlled this company for decades," he said. "Its primary business is enrichment through the sales of narcotics. … We allege that the trust participated in the wrongdoing."

He said the family and the trust for more than a dozen years has structured its family and corporate affairs to avoid legal liability, Purdue marketed and distributed OxyContin, but purchased the main ingredient, oxycodone, from Rhodes Technologies. Rhodes Pharmaceuticals then sold a generic form of the pill.

"The company has been managed in such a way to leave no fingerprints" of the Sacklers, Sheridan said.

Joseph said even if all that were true, the counties haven't shown that Sackler family members did anything wrong generally or in New York State specifically.

Instead of relying on evidence, Joseph said the counties "just have a story, and they have the media buying that story."

Steven Napolitano, a Manhattan attorney for the Rhodes companies, said they were distinct from Purdue and engaged in no marketing. Just because the Rhodes companies had the same family ownership as Purdue was meaningless, he said.

Sheridan said that made no sense.

"This is part of an overall scheme," he said. "This is not a sleepy Rhode Island company selling chemicals to an unrelated company. It's a Sackler-owned company selling the active ingredient in OxyContin to another Sackler-owned company."

He said the Sackler family's financial success depends on all the companies it owns.

"They chose to divide it up into all these little, separate companies, I guess to avoid liability," Sheridan said. "But it's all part of one, unified scheme."

Gargiulo said he would rule on the motions before the next court date on June 24.

In the meantime, he urged the many lawyers to think about mediation and setting up a national fund to pay for the costs of opioid addiction.

"It might be something to consider," he said.

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