FARGO — The city of Fargo has joined a long list of cities and counties across the state of North Dakota and the United States by suing OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma in federal court for the company’s alleged role in the national opioid addiction crisis.
The city seeks unspecified damages from Purdue Pharma and a group of defendants involved in the manufacture and distribution of prescription opioids, alleging the companies caused economic damage to the city by precipitating the addiction crisis through deceptive sales tactics and their failure to flag suspicious orders of drugs.
Exact damages would be determined in a jury trial, according to the 162-page civil complaint filed by the city of Fargo in U.S. District Court in North Dakota earlier in July. Wells, Pierce, and Pembina counties also brought lawsuits against Purdue Pharma earlier this month.
In 2014, almost 2 million Americans were addicted to prescription opioids, and between 1999 and 2015, more than 183,000 died from overdoses related to the drugs, according to previous lawsuits filed in North Dakota.
The city of Fargo seeks to recoup the costs of providing medical care, addiction treatment and law enforcement stemming from what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has described as a public health epidemic.
In 2018, the Fargo Police Department responded to 30 drug overdose incidents, 11 of which were fatal, according to the complaint. The number of deaths would be higher, the complaint states, but police were able to prevent 18 overdose deaths using naloxone.
Police also reported a 3% increase in crime in Fargo, mainly burglaries and thefts that Police Chief David Todd said were mostly connected to “rampant” drug use and addiction. The rise in opioid addiction was brought about by manufacturer and marketer efforts to change the way physicians approached prescribing the drugs, the city alleges.
From the mid-1990s to the present, companies including Purdue Pharma borrowed “from the tobacco industry’s playbook,” the complaint states, employing marketing strategies to change public perception about the risks of prescription painkillers.
The companies spread false messages about the safety, addictiveness and efficacy of the drugs by infiltrating professional medical societies and influencing guidelines, the city alleges.
In addition to seeking damages from marketers, the city of Fargo is suing the “big three” drug distributors — Cardinal, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen — for their failure to flag suspicious orders of prescription drugs and prevent them from being shipped.
Distributors and retail pharmacies are obligated by federal and state laws to flag and refuse to ship suspicious orders of controlled substances, including opioids, though the city of Fargo’s lawsuit makes no specific mention of cases where distributors failed to screen shipments into the city.
The lawsuit states, however, that the CDC has said that the increased distribution of opioids directly correlates to increased overdose death rates.
A wave of local government suits in North Dakota comes after a Burleigh County District Court judge dismissed a 2018 suit brought by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem on behalf of the state of North Dakota against Purdue Pharma.
That dismissal was reaffirmed Monday — the first full dismissal of a case brought by a state.
Similar lawsuits brought by 19 North Dakota cities and counties against Purdue Pharma and other prescription opioid defendants in June were transferred to the Northern District of Ohio where around 1,500 suits are consolidated under one judge.