Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties are all being represented by the same law firm in mushrooming litigation that states, counties and cities have brought against the makers of OxyContin and other painkillers to demand repayment for taxpayer costs the opioid epidemic has caused.
Ulster officials, who already had announced their intent to join the lawsuits, decided last week to enlist Simmons Hanly Conroy, the same firm handling cases on behalf of Orange, Sullivan and about nine other New York counties so far. A second firm, Napoli Shkolnik, has brought similar lawsuits on behalf of at least two counties in New York. Both firms also are taking on cities and states around the U.S. as clients in a legal strategy modeled on successful litigation states brought against tobacco makers in the 1990s.
The premise of the counties’ cases is that the pharmaceutical companies and several key doctors who promoted opioid use and concealed the risk of addiction should be held responsible for the drugs’ monetary toll.
“From our perspective, we have invested heavily in the health of our community,” Ulster County Executive Mike Hein said. “We are up against a multi-billion industry that has invested heavily against the health of our community.”
Paul Hanly, lead attorney for the New York cases, said the lawsuits will seek reimbursement for what counties have spent on drug rehabilitation, hospital treatment, overdose autopsies and other public costs of opioid addiction.
“There’s a whole spectrum of kinds of damages that counties have incurred that we would strive to recover,” Hanly said.
All of the New York cases have been assigned to a single judge in Suffolk County on Long Island, where Hanly’s firm filed its first lawsuit about a year ago. Hanly, who said his firm is talking with up to a dozen other New York counties about joining the litigation, estimates the cases could take two to five years to reach a resolution. By then, he expects more than 1,000 jurisdictions – states, counties and cities – around the country will have filed lawsuits.
The goal of the lawsuits is to force drug makers into a massive settlement similar to one that 46 states reached with the four largest tobacco manufacturers in 1998. As a result of those lawsuits, New York and its counties collect significant sums from tobacco companies each year and will continue to do so through 2025. The payments this year included $600 million for the state, $3.4 million for Orange County, $2 million for Ulster County and $931,000 for Sullivan County.
Counties have no restrictions on how they spend tobacco settlement money. Orange County officials say they use their payments to defray the costs of Medicaid, since smoking causes medical problems.
Defendants in New York’s opioid cases include Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin; Teva Pharmaceuticals and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, both of which make fentanyl; and Endo Pharmaceuticals, which makes Percocet. Counties pay nothing to participate in the litigation. Hanly’s firm would keep a percentage of the drug makers’ future settlement payment and recover its expenses through that payout if and when it reaches that stage.