Mayor Greg Fischer announcing the city’s lawsuit against three major opioid distributors on Monday | Photo by Joe Sonka

Mayor Greg Fischer announced at a press conference Monday morning that Louisville Metro Government has filed a federal lawsuit against three major wholesale distributors of prescription drugs, arguing that these companies played a role in creating the city’s deadly opioid crisis by negligently dumping millions of highly addictive pills into the local market.

The city’s lawsuit is against Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and McKesson, distribution companies that Fischer said have annual revenues of $400 billion and control 85 percent of the market share. Instead of disclosing suspicious orders of opioid pills to the Drug Enforcement Agency in accordance with federal law, Fischer charged that these companies failed to properly monitor and report such shipments, “turned their heads and profited from the flood of pills into communities like ours.”

After laws were passed in Kentucky to crack down on so-called “pill mills” prescribing and distributing powerfully addictive painkillers, those addicted began to seek out the cheaper and more available heroin, with deadly results.

Both fatal and non-fatal overdoses have soared in Louisville over the last two years, as not just heroin use increased, but the presence of the much more potent opioid fentanyl emerged within the market. Following Louisville’s record-high 364 fatal overdoses in 2016, records from the Jefferson County Coroner’s office show that opioids were involved in 81 percent of the 179 overdose deaths during the first five months of this year.

Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell also spoke at the press conference, saying that from 2012 through 2017, more than 197 million doses of prescription opioids were dispensed within the county, fueling addiction behind the opioid crisis that has claimed so many lives — including that of his own son, who died of a heroin overdose in 2014.

Heroin is on the rise due to increased opioid addiction.

In addition to harming so many families, Fischer noted the opioid crisis has served as a large burden on the city’s first responders, correction facilities and hospitals, citing research showing the total economic burden of the opioid epidemic nationally to be $78.5 billion.

“We have a lost generation of people addicted to opiates,” said Mayor Fischer. “We’ve seen a spike in violent crime tied directly to the sale and misuse of opioids. We are spending millions of dollars on health, public safety and justice expenses tied to this epidemic, money that instead could go to lifelong learning, to affordable housing, to pave more roads, plant more trees … many ways we could use this in our community. So it is only right that the for-profit companies that fueled this epidemic be part in ending it. We intend to see that they are.”

Louisville joins several other cities in West Virginia and Ohio that have recently filed lawsuits against the same three drug distributors, including Cincinnati last week. Fischer said the city has hired a consortium of law firms to work on the case that are also involved in these other individual suits in other cities, who will pay all expenses to litigate the case at no cost to taxpayers.

These firms will receive 30 percent of the damages awarded to Louisville if the lawsuit is successful, though there is currently no set figure on the amount of damages the city will seek.

O’Connell called the opioid crisis one of the problems his office is forced to deal with every day, but said the wholesale distributors who caused it will now be held accountable in federal court, beyond recent fines handed down that they have been able to brush off — like the $150 million fine against McKesson in January.

“These companies have profited off this epidemic to such a degree that fines of $150 million or more are simply viewed as a cost of doing business,” said O’Connell. “So yes, I think there is liability on the part of these distributors that has left our taxpayers in this community and other communities around this nation holding the bill … I see this as one of Louisville’s best chances to recover the damages our citizens are coming through skyrocketing city expenses born out of the flood of pills.”

A copy of the city’s complaint against the wholesale drug distributors can be read be read below:

Louisville Metro Government lawsuit against opioid distributors by insiderlouisville on Scribd

This story has been updated.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]