Michigan files suit against opioid companies, charging them as ‘drug dealers’

Attorney General Dana Nessel, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Chief Medical Executive Joneigh Khaldun announce a major opioid lawsuit, Dec. 17, 2019 | Nick Manes

The state of Michigan has filed a “historic” lawsuit against four companies tied to the production and distribution of opioids. 

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday morning in Wayne County Circuit Court, charges Cardinal Health, McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Walgreens as drug dealers under the state’s 1994 Drug Dealer Liability Act. A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office said it’s the first lawsuit they’re aware of to use such a legal argument. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announces a major opioid lawsuit, Dec. 17, 2019 | Nick Manes

The law allows for civil damages against those “who participate in illegally marketing controlled substances; and to prescribe parties, procedures and damages regarding that action.” 

The 100-page lawsuit makes multiple allegations that the companies:

  • Distributed and sold opioids in ways that facilitated and encouraged their flow into the illegal, secondary market
  • Distributed and sold opioids without maintaining effective controls against the diversion of opioids
  • Chose not to effectively monitor suspicious orders
  • Chose not to investigate suspicious orders
  • Chose not to report suspicious orders
  • Chose not to stop or suspend shipments of suspicious orders
  • Distributed and sold opioids prescribed by “pill mills” when these companies knew or should have known the opioids were being prescribed by said “pill mills”
Attorney General Dana Nessel announces a major opioid lawsuit, Dec. 17, 2019 | Nick Manes

“They knowingly and deliberately distributed drugs in our state without controls,” Attorney General Dana Nessel said at a news conference announcing the lawsuit. “This was not only negligent. It was unlawful; a public nuisance.”

Nessel said she does not yet have a specific amount of damages the state will be seeking, but expects it to be more than $1 billion and that the funds would be used to pay for items in the state that have been directly impacted by the opioid epidemic, such as treatment, health care and law enforcement. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last month announced her plan to cut opioid deaths in Michigan in half over the next five years with a focus on preventing opioid misuse, ensuring individuals using opioids can access high-quality recovery treatment and reducing harm.

Whitmer wants Michigan to cut opioid-related deaths by 50% in 5 years 

The state said 2,000 Michigan residents died from opioid overdoses in 2018.

“This is a crisis,” Whitmer said Tuesday of the opioid epidemic. “It hurts families from rural parts of Michigan to the big cities.” 

Wayne County was chosen as the venue for the lawsuit for a number of reasons, according to Nessel spokeswoman Kelly-Rossman McKinney. Among those reasons is that Michigan’s most populous county is “ground zero for the opioid epidemic in the state of Michigan.”

Additionally, Nessel is a former Wayne County prosecutor and is “extremely familiar” with the county’s court system, Rossman-McKinney told reporters. 

Nessel is part of a committee of state attorneys general working toward a settlement agreement with drugmaker Purdue Pharma. Nessel is one of the only Democratic attorneys general to accept the company’s proposed settlement rather than reject it over a lack of accountability. 

Nessel an outlier among other Dem AGs over Purdue Pharma settlement

The state has also been part of multiple other smaller settlements in recent months, as the Advance has previously reported. 

Asked why Michigan is just now bringing its own lawsuit against the drug industry, Nessel laid the blame solely at the feet of her predecessor, Republican former Attorney General Bill Schuette. 

Bill Schuette
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, April 20, 2016 in Flint | Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

The AG’s office, she said, has been working on this lawsuit since taking office almost one year ago. 

“What my predecessor spent the eight years before that doing, you have to ask him,” Nessel said. “But one thing I know is, he didn’t do a damn thing when it came to moving forward with these opioid lawsuits, which I believe are critical in regard to getting the finances that we need —  and that our state deserves — to tackle this incredibly devastating epidemic.”