Lawsuit takes aim at drug companies and distributors for opioid medication, first in SC

Pills (File photo/WCIV)

A lawsuit filed in Beaufort County on Tuesday is taking a shot at drug companies and distributors of opioid medication.

The lengthy civil lawsuit names more than 20 defendants, including Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Rite Aid of South Carolina and individual physicians, claiming deceptive practices, fraud and misrepresentation of dangers of opioid medication.

"Manufacturers in the '90s and early 2000s used key opinion leader doctors to outright tell untruths, falsehoods to the American people, to the citizens of Beaufort County," said Ben Shelton, attorney with Finger, Melnic & Brooks, P.A. "To say that these drugs are safe, they're non-addictive, or they do not have a high risk of addiction and they're safe for chronic use, we know that's not true."

"This was an effective, deceptive marketing campaign and the counties across South Carolina are suffering real damages," said Charleston-based attorney Matt Yelverton. "The FDA has approved it, are these safe? Well the FDA approves these pills, these drugs, based on information received from the manufacturers."

The suit claims widespread opioid use has created an economic burden for first responders, local governments, and taxpayers footing the bills for addiction treatment, hospitalization and medications.

The number of drug overdose deaths in Beaufort County keeps rising. In 2015, there were four. In 2016, there were seven, but in 2017, there were 24. Coroner Edward Allen said 17 of those were caused by opioid use. Allen said he's not so sure the crisis has met its peak.

"I would be stupid enough to say I wish we've reached the peak but unfortunately, I'm quite certain there's going to be an increase, just as we look at what's happened in a 3-year period," said Allen.

EMS personnel bear the brunt of opioid overdose calls. Between 2013 and 2016, there's been a 67-percent increase in EMS attempts to reverse opioid overdoses, according to S.C. Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, South Carolina ranked highest among states for number of painkiller prescriptions per 100 people.

The lawsuit is the first suit of its kind to be filed in the state.

"We know the damages are vast, we know the damages begin with the actual expenses that would not be there but for the opioid crisis," Shelton said.

Other counties joined the lawsuit on Tuesday including Colleton, Spartanburg, Williamsburg, Hampton, Jasper and Allendale, according to Yelverton.

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