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‘Honesty Was In Short Supply’: N.Y. Trial Starts With Arguments Against Opioid Makers

Jessica Hill

Opening statements began Tuesday in a landmark opioid trial against pharmaceutical companies who are being sued in Nassau and Suffolk counties, as well as the state of New York, to hold the drugmakers responsible for the ongoing opioid epidemic. On Long Island, the trial is the first of its kind to be heard by a jury.

The lawsuits seek monetary damages from both opioid manufacturers and distributors, including Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Endo International, McKesson and Cardinal Health. Johnson & Johnson reached a $230 million settlement with the state and agreed to end the manufacturing and distribution of opioids. CVS also reached a settlement with the state in the weeks leading up to the trial.

The deal removes the companies from the trial this week; even though Johnson & Johnson said the settlement does not indicate fault or wrongdoing.

Convened at Touro Law School, state Supreme Court Justice Jerry Garguilo said the counties and state must prove the way companies marketed and distributed opioids created a “public nuisance'' for the jury to side in their favor and allow the municipalities to receive damages.

“As we fight to put an end to these companies’ unlawful conduct and hold them accountable for the consequences, we recognize no amount of money will ever compensate for the pain and destruction we have collectively experienced, but we hope to push every dollar possible into preventing any future devastation — by investing in prevention, education and treatment programs,” New York State Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement. "As always, our goal remains getting funds into communities devastated by opioids as quickly as possible.”

Jayne Conroy, the attorney for Suffolk County, began her opening statement with a photo of an opium flower as a symbol for how out of hand the crisis has gotten. She called the flower beautiful but the start of an epidemic. Hunter Shkolnik, the attorney for Nassau County, called opioid prescriptions, “heroin in a pill,” and blamed distributors for not stopping suspicious orders.

Conroy accused drug companies of minimizing the impact opioids had on communities.She said companies first told doctors and patients addiction was rare. She said drugmakers claimed doctors should not worry about signs of an alleged pseudoaddiction, or symptoms chronic pain patients can experience that are similar to those with substance use problems.

However, if they were to increase the dosage of painkillers, she said the companies told doctors those symptoms go away.

“Honesty was in short supply,” Conroy said.

Conroy said she hoped she would be successful in securing compensation for Long Islanders impacted by addiction.

“The defendants have unleashed a flood of opioids on Americans over two decades and continued to choose profits over people even after it was clear the country was facing an epidemic,” she said in a statement. “For too long, the people of Suffolk County have had to fund increased police, EMS, medical and social service costs to deal with the opioid epidemic."

“This trial is about holding the defendants accountable and making sure Suffolk County gets the resources it needs to address this crisis,” Conroy continued.

Stephen Acquario, executive director and general counsel to the New York State Association of Counties, which is not involved in the lawsuit, said the undisclosed monetary damages that come from the lawsuit could be a game changer for recovery on Long Island.

“We need to get funding into the community, into treatment programs and providers and hospitals and healthcare agencies to really begin to change a culture here,” he said. “And it's going to take decades to do that. And so the next generation doesn't have to have the same type of harm that's been inflicted on the current generation.”

And for residents like Dave Morrissey, who lost his son to opioid use, the hope is that any potential money awarded goes to substance use treatment.

“When people get sick from addiction, you know, neighbors don't come over and bake you a cake you know, like they do with you if you have some other disease," said Morrissey, who has become an advocate for drug prevention in Smithtown. “This is the kind of thing that needs more funding for treatment and making people whole again.”

The trial is expected to go on through the summer. It’s taking place at Touro Law School to accommodate the public interest in this case.

Leah is a former intern with WSHU Public Radio.