Palm Beach County sues Wal-Mart, CVS, drug firms over opioid crisis

Palm Beach County has filed suit against more than two dozen individuals and firms — including mega-companies like CVS, Wal-Mart and Johnson & Johnson — alleging that their negligence and deceptive trade practices have contributed to the ongoing opioid crisis.

The 266-page complaint, filed Thursday in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, is massive not only in size but in scope. It represents the county’s high-stakes effort to recoup money it has spent battling an epidemic that has devastated families here and across the country.

“The thousands of Palm Beach County families struck by this epidemic deserve to hold someone accountable for deceptive, unscrupulous practices involving opioid dispensing, advertising and prescribing,” Palm Beach County Mayor Melissa McKinlay said in a written statement late Thursday. “I am grateful the day has finally come that we are filing suit and saying enough is enough.”

» RELATED: The Post’s complete coverage of Palm Beach County’s opioid crisis

Palm Beach County filed suit even as some commissioners expressed reservations about one of the law firms that will be spearheading the county’s effort.

That firm, Napoli Shkolnik, is joining with fellow New York firm Stull, Stull and Brody as well as the Ferraro Law Firm of Miami, to represent the county in a legal battle that pits the county against some of the most financially and politically powerful firms in the country.

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“This case is about one thing: corporate greed,” the complaint alleges. “Defendants put their desire for profits above the health and well-being of Palm Beach County consumers at the cost of Plaintiff.”

Those costs have been cataclysmic both in human and financial terms, the complaint says.

The opioid crisis has affected everything from homelessness and foster care to emergency services and law enforcement.

Palm Beach County’s lawsuit lays blame for the crisis directly on the 29 people and firms it is suing.

“Defendants, through a sophisticated, highly deceptive and unfair marketing campaign that began in the late 1990s, deepened around 2006, and continues to the present, set out to, and did, reverse the popular and medical understanding of opioids,” the complaint alleges. “Chronic opioid therapy—the prescribing of opioids to treat chronic pain long-term—is now commonplace.”

The Palm Beach Post, which has reported extensively on the opioid crisis, was not able to reach defendants Thursday evening to get responses to the complaint, which was filed at 3:45 p.m. and provided to the newspaper 45 minutes later.

In addition to Wal-Mart, CVS and Johnson & Johnson, the 29 defendants include: Walgreens, Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals and Watson Laboratories of Palm Beach Gardens, Cephalon, Insys Therapeutic, Ortho-McNeil-Janssen, Endo Pharmaceuticals and Cardinal Health.

Insys Therapeutics is accused in criminal indictments and lawsuits across the country of bribing physicians to write prescriptions for its fentanyl spray.

Two of its executives, under indictment on RICO charges in Massachusetts, hail from Palm Beach County.

Alec Burlakoff, once a counselor at a private prep school in Boca Raton, is named time after time in court actions as being the brainchild and chief driver in what prosecutors describe as a “sham” speakers program to get “money in doctors’ pockets.”

Sunrise Lee, a regional sales chief, was a former exotic dancer at Rachel’s Gentlemen’s Club in West Palm Beach, according to news reports.

Greenacres’ Bart Gatz is one of the top prescribers and speakers of Insys’ spray, called Subsys, in the country. He said he believes he is one of 10 doctors described in the indictment as “co-conspirators” but did nothing wrong.

In the county’s lawsuit, it alleges a long series of misdeeds by the plaintiffs: deceptive marketing, deceptive sales training, fraudulent marketing, misleading medical education, funding false presentations and publications and unjust enrichment.

With the suit, Palm Beach County joins Delray Beach and Broward County as regional governments that have gone to court in the opioid battle.

Similar suits have also cropped up across the nation as governments turn to companies profiting from the manufacturing, distribution and sale of opioids to recoup money they have spent battling the crisis.

There have been some settlements, but the stakes could still be high. Some lawyers argue that losing a case against such deep-pocketed firms could result in the county having to pay court costs and attorneys fees, which, given the complexity and time required to handle these cases, could be significant.

Some commissioners have sought to protect county taxpayers from that possibility by insisting that firms representing the county agree to cover any and all costs that could arise from an opioids suit.

Others, however, agreed with lawyers who said such indemnification violates Florida Bar rules against firms providing financial assistance to clients and covering the costs of parties that file unsuccessful or frivolous lawsuits.

Of the three teams of firms that were finalists in the county’s bidding process, only the Napoli-Stull-Ferraro team said the bar’s ethics rules don’t preclude it from offering the full indemnification the county sought.

The bar issued an advisory opinion saying the county’s indemnification provisions do violate its ethics rules, generating calls from commissioners Dave Kerner and Mack Bernard for a re-opening of the bidding process so teams that didn’t agree to the provisions could be considered again.

County Attorney Denise Nieman disagreed with the bar’s advisory opinion, and, after sharing the opinion of an ethics expert who also disagreed with the bar, told commissioners they were free to insist upon full indemnification.

She recommended that commissioners not re-open the selection process, saying doing so could force the county to pay for work already undertaken by the Napoli-Stull-Ferraro team and undermine faith in the county’s selection process.

The Post has reported on lurid claims and counterclaims by and against one Napoli Shkolnik attorney, Paul Napoli. And the newspaper has reported on allegations of client poaching and excessive fees filed against another Napoli Shkolnik attorney, Hunter Shkolnik.

Both men deny the allegations against them and say they are prepared to press the county’s case.

Kerner said Thursday’s filing does not moot the question of whether the Napoli-Stull-Ferraro team should represent Palm Beach County.

“If new counsel is retained, they can come in and amend it as necessary,” he said. “Napoli is our attorney for right now, and we’ll have to rely on their advice.”

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