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Orange Selectboard mulling lawsuit over opioid crisis

  • Orange Town Hall by night File photo



Staff Writer
Friday, August 24, 2018

ORANGE — Another Massachusetts town could be suing the pharmaceutical industry over the opioid crisis soon.

Greenfield and about 90 other Massachusetts municipalities are already suing multi-billion-dollar drug distribution companies, alleging they have played a role in creating an opioid-abuse epidemic.

The legal effort is led by a national consortium of law firms known as the Massachusetts Opioid Litigation Attorneys, which has approached Orange and asked the town to join the attempt to win back money spent on law enforcement, emergency medical services and the administration of Narcan, an opioid antagonist.

Most experts agree that many of those people addicted to opioids like heroin today started with prescription painkillers.

Discussions about joining the legal effort — which is not a class-action lawsuit, because each town is suing individually — began in the spring, when attorney Thomas Merrigan of Sweeney Merrigan Law LLP, a MOLA law firm, visited the Selectboard.

“The suit is on behalf of the municipality for its past cost as well as its future cost for dealing with the epidemic,” said Merrigan, a judge for more than a decade at Orange District Court who saw the rising number of opioid-related cases in the area first hand.

“In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which was basically a deal with the manufacturers that in exchange for the opportunity to transact in this dangerous product, opioids, they imposed on them by statute an affirmative obligation that they need to identify and report suspicious or aberrant patterns of distribution, consumption and activity,” Merrigan said, adding that the manufacturers “looked the other way” instead.

Now, MOLA has submitted a five-page agreement the Selectboard must sign to sue the pharmaceutical companies. The document was under review by Town Attorney Donna MacNicol and was expected to be signed at an upcoming Selectboard meeting if there are were no legal issues.

However, according to Selectboard Vice Chairwoman Jane Peirce, a debate must be had before signing on. Originally, the lawsuit was expected to be at no cost to the town, and if any money is awarded, 25 percent of that would go to the attorneys representing the town. The understanding, outlined at a Selectboard meeting on June 27, was that the town gets nothing and spends nothing if no money is awarded.

Now, it appears that “under certain circumstances,” the lawsuit could end up costing the town money, Peirce said. Peirce declined to give more information or MacNicol’s opinion before the Selectboard has a chance to debate the issue.

According to MOLA, the rate of opioid related deaths in Orange has grown drastically since the early 2000s. From 2001 to 2005 in Orange, the average rate of opioid deaths was between 2.1 to 6.1 per 100,000 people. From 2011 to 2015 in Orange, the average rate of opioid deaths was greater than 17 per 100,000 people.

The litigation names McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and about 20 others, which Merrigan previously said “aren’t Fortune 500 companies, these are Fortune 15 companies.”

If it chooses to sue, Orange must identify instances it had to pay for the legal “nuisance” of the opioid crisis the drug companies are liable for, according to Merrigan. MOLA attorneys would then file the lawsuit in a federal court.

Reach David McLellan at
dmclellan@recorder.com or
413-772-0261, ext. 268.