Sandy Springs is preparing to sue prescription drug makers and distributors over the opioid addiction epidemic.
And its attorney says other local cities – including Atlanta, Brookhaven and Dunwoody – are considering suing as well. Dunwoody is “discussing” the possibility, while Brookhaven has “no plans at this time” to sue, spokespeople for the cities later said.
Sandy Springs’ strategy is to join hundreds of other local governments – including DeKalb and Fulton counties – in lawsuits that are being heard by a single federal judge in Cleveland, Ohio, to speed them along. The City Council’s consensus for City Attorney Dan Lee to draft a lawsuit for formal approval came March 6, the day after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Justice Department will support such local lawsuits.
“I don’t have to tell you all, it is an epidemic, especially through north Georgia,” Lee told the City Council about opioid addiction.
Opioids are a class of addictive, often easily lethal drugs that include opium, morphine, heroin, oxycodone and fentanyl, among others. Together, they are estimated to kill over 50,000 Americans a year, and addicting many others, in a crisis that is trending upward. Street-drug versions now kill the most people through overdoses, but the gist of the lawsuits is that major drug manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies sparked the crisis with deceptive marketing and overuse of prescription painkillers.
Lee, speaking after the City Council meeting, called the opioid addiction crisis “a social problem that was generated by bad players.” He said he’s heard the situation likened to crack and meth – if they were sold with TV ads and other mainstream industry marketing.
The lawsuit, Lee said, would present the city as an “injured party” due to its costs in caring for people addicted to and overdosing on opioids. He said lawyers have created a formula to estimate the city’s cost in such areas as police and Fire Rescue Department resources.
Police Chief Ken DeSimone said those costs are real and frequent, with officers responding to overdose calls “weekly.” Just days earlier, DeSimone said, police responded to a man-and-woman couple who overdosed on opioids in a home with about six children. The woman survived, he said, but the man died.
The lawsuit would become one of many bundled for review – but not literally combined, as in a class-action lawsuit – in the Cleveland federal court, where they could see possible settlement or return to local jurisdictions, according to Cleveland Plain Dealer reports. The judge and the strategy of bundled lawsuits were profiled March 5 in the New York Times.
Lee likened the strategy to the tobacco industry lawsuits of the 1990s, where many states sued cigarette-makers for years of false advertising and hiding data on health dangers and addiction risks. Lee, a former state senator, recalled that Georgia balanced its budget with a tobacco lawsuit settlement payment. Lee said he has discussed the lawsuit strategy with city attorneys of other jurisdictions expressing interest in doing the same, including Atlanta, Brookhaven and Dunwoody.
Sandy Springs City Councilmember John Paulson said he supports suing for the financial reimbursement, and on the theory that the more cities that join up, the more likely a solution to the crisis becomes.
Mayor Rusty Paul recalled a meeting of north Fulton mayors about a year ago where the scope of the opioid crisis was discussed and two heroin addicts in recovery spoke.
“I was just astonished at the story of families… upscale families in north Fulton,” who had faced addiction and dead family members, Paul said.
The city of Atlanta did not immediately respond to comment requests about possible opioid lawsuits.
Dunwoody’s city government “is discussing the issue, [and] the suits and actions being taken in the region, but no decision has been made,” according to spokesperson Bob Mullen, who added that the police department has saved lives with the opioid overdose antidote naloxone.
The city of Brookhaven is not joining the lawsuits for now, according to spokesperson Burke Brennan.
“We are aware of its existence,” said Brennan about the lawsuits and the strategy. “However, Brookhaven does not provide emergency medical services in response to the crisis. There are no plans at this time to participate in this lawsuit.”
Brookhaven does not have a city fire department or ambulance service, with DeKalb County providing both services. However, it does have a police department, whose officers have carried naloxone since 2015.
The Reporter recently launched an exclusive four-part series about the local opioid epidemic. “Coping with a Crisis: Opioid Addiction in the Suburbs” will look at how local families, nurses, prosecutors, recovering addicts and others are responding. For the first installment, about local families using obituaries as protests against the stigma of opioid overdose death, click here. For an Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital emergency department doctor’s overview of the opioid crisis and how it affects his work every day, click here.
Updated version: This story has been updated with comment from the cities of Brookhaven and Dunwoody.