A lawsuit claims drug companies and pharmacies created the opioid “epidemic” linked to Shenandoah County’s high rate of addicted newborns.

A group of law firms jointly filed a complaint on behalf of Shenandoah County earlier this month that names as defendants dozens of drug manufacturers, pharmacies, distributors and individuals referred to as pharmacy benefit managers. The plaintiff — in this case, Shenandoah County — claims the defendants created and benefited from the opioid epidemic. Attorneys around the state filed similar complaints for other localities.

The Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously at its Aug. 1 meeting to authorize officials to proceed with the lawsuit. The board voted a year ago to retain the law firms of Sanford, Heisler, Sharp and Kaufman & Canoles. The Cicala Law Firm also represents the county in the suit.

Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy Carter commented by email Wednesday on the epidemic’s impact on his office.

“Heroin cases and related cases remain a significant workload for Sheriff’s Office staff,” Carter states. “It appears from an enforcement perspective that the federal judicial system has more punitive impact than the state system. We certainly try to go that route when we can, especially for distribution and opioid death related cases.”

The sheriff noted that the area lacks services for people addicted to opioids.

“In my opinion, there are not significant pre- or post-arrest services for those addicted to opioids,” Carter states. “We would rather those people with this addiction have appropriate treatment services before there are injuries, deaths, and violations of law.”

The county claims in the complaint that the defendants conspired to commit fraud and created the opioid epidemic blamed for increased abuse of the drugs, overdose deaths and related public service costs.

“The manufacturers make the opioids and lie about their efficacy and addictive properties,” the complaint states.

Wholesalers deliver the opioids from the point of manufacture to the point of delivery to the patient, according to the complaint. Pharmacy benefit managers use a design plan and management to control which drugs go where and for how they are paid, the complaint states. Retail pharmacies then release the opioids into the public.

“Each defendant group profits enormously from the movement of the opioid products,” the complaint states. “Each has incentives to move certain drugs over others.

“Defendants themselves create the incentives and share in their perversity — usually without disclosure to those who reasonably rely on Defendants who abide by their federal, state and common law duties,” the complaint goes on to state. “They do so at the expense of the Plaintiff and communities like it nationwide.”

As states pursue litigation against entities accused of sowing the seeds of the opioid epidemic, media outlets such as The New York Times reported that manufacturers such as Purdue Pharma claim they didn’t know about the growing abuse of its painkiller, Oxycontin, long after it hit the market. The lawsuit names Purdue Pharma as a defendant.

The suit asks that the court enter judgment against all defendants and award the plaintiff no less than $60 million in compensatory damages; $350,000 per defendant; treble damages, costs and expenses related to the civil action; and compel the defendants to abate and remove the public nuisance they caused by immediately ceasing the unlawful conduct described in the complaint.

The complaint cites data to describe how the plaintiff claims the opioid epidemic affected Shenandoah County. For example:

The rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome — a disease that develops in a newborn exposed to a drug, such as heroin, codeine and Oxycodone, used by his or her mother during pregnancy — in Shenandoah County has been higher than the statewide rate every year since 2012. The rate peaked in 2015 at more than three times higher than the statewide rate and has remained significantly higher than the statewide rate.

The reported rate of hepatitis C infections among 18- to 30-year-olds jumped to 379.9 cases per 100,000 people — far higher than the statewide rate of 140.9 cases per 100,000 people.

The rate of overdose deaths in Shenandoah County has steadily risen from 8.26 deaths per 100,000 people in 2003 to 20.71 deaths per 100,000 people in 2016.

The county now must allocate tax dollars, resources, staff, energy and time to address the damage linked to the opioid epidemic, according to the complaint. Overdose cases put an increased burden on fire and medical services, law enforcement, courts, social workers, the school system, intervention centers, clinics, and employee benefit plans, the complaint notes.

Virginia’s state health commissioner in 2016 declared the state’s opioid addiction problem a public health emergency, the complaint notes. An average of three people in Virginia each day die from, and hospital emergency departments treat more than two dozen patients for drug overdoses. Fatal overdoses increased 35 percent in the first half of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015, according to the complaint. More Virginians die each year from drug overdoses than motor-vehicle crashes, the complaint notes.

“Defendants’ opioid-related misconduct causes heroin abuse,” the plaintiffs claim.

A 2015 study found that four out of five heroin users reported that their addiction started with opioid pain relievers, the complaint states. The plaintiffs claim that thanks to the defendants, prescription opioids provided to patients for everyday conditions such as chronic knee pain and dental pain can operate as a gateway drug to heroin use and involvement in the illegal drug market.

The complaint lists multiple counts the county claims show cause of action against the defendants. The plaintiff seeks to recover the incurred and anticipated costs of providing emergency services needed to abate the “public nuisance” created by the defendants, the complaint states. The public nuisance affects service providers, drug users and adults and children who have never taken opioids, according to the complaint.

Manufacturers named in the suit violated the Virginia Consumer Protection Act by misrepresenting that goods and services have certain quantities, characteristics, ingredients, uses or benefits, the plaintiff claims. The complaint states that manufacturers committed fraud by misrepresenting and omitting facts to induce county residents to buy, administer and consume opioids.

Defendants conspired to increase opioid use and to fraudulently sell and distribute as many opioids as possible, causing harm to the county, the complaint states.

– Contact Alex Bridges at abridges@nvdaily.com