Two unions have added their names to the long and growing list of organizations suing the makers and distributors of opioid painkillers.
On Feb. 6, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 and the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court against a long list of defendants, including some of the largest makers and distributors of pharmaceuticals in the world.
In their complaint, the unions assert they “have lost union members to opioid dependence, abuse and overdoses – a natural and foreseeable consequence of the overuse of opioids in the construction industry – and have absorbed the emotional and financial costs of the opioid epidemic.”
Further they assert their associated member welfare funds, which fund member health benefits, as well as life and disability insurance, “have been unexpectedly forced to shoulder substantial and unusual costs imposed by long-term opioid use.”
In addition to opioid addiction treatment and overdose hospitalization costs, the welfare funds “have also paid millions of dollars in disability benefits to injured workers who received long-term opioid prescriptions to treat chronic pain, a treatment option which … is dangerous and unsupported by science.”
Defendants named in the action include a litany of familiar names found in virtually all of the other hundreds of lawsuits pending across the country against the companies associated with the opioid litigation.
These include: Purdue Pharma, Cephalon, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Endo International, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson, Allergan, Actavis, Watson Laboratories, Mallinckrodt, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson Corporation.
The union suit also includes defendants based in Chicago, including the American Academy of Pain Medicine, the American Geriatric Society, American Pain Society, and doctors Paul Madison and Joseph Giacchino, who helped run Riverside Pain Management – an alleged “pill mill” – in suburban Riverside from 2013-2017.
The unions are represented by attorneys from the firm of Edelson P.C.
The Edelson attorneys are also representing a large number of other Chicago area plaintiffs in litigation against opioid makers, distributors and promoters, including a host of cities and villages from Chicago’s suburbs, and elsewhere.
The Edelson firm has also filed suit on behalf of two organizations which provide workers’ comp insurance and employee health insurance for more than 200 local governments in Illinois.
In those municipal lawsuits, the filings included a virtually identical list of defendants.
Just as in the local governments’ lawsuits, the union lawsuit blames those associated with opioid painkillers for causing a “public health crisis,” playing some role in an alleged campaign of marketing and misinformation to boost the sale of opioid painkiller pills like Oxycontin, Percocet and others. The campaign allegedly resulted in a nationwide surge in addiction and its associated societal and treatment costs, as the pills entered communities in Illinois and across the U.S. in a “flood.”
Defendants in these complaints have been sorted into four groups: manufacturers; distributors; “front groups” accused of lending an air of legitimacy to the widespread use of opioid drugs; and prescribers, like the operators of the Riverside clinic, who allegedly overprescribed opioid medications.
Those other lawsuits have been removed by the defendants from Cook County Circuit Court and transferred to federal court. There, they have been sent on to a federal court in Cleveland, where a federal judge has been tasked with overseeing the vast host of similar cases from throughout the country in one proceeding.
According to a release accompanying the union lawsuit, the union’s are seeking money from the drug companies “to recover the unions’ substantial costs relating to the opioid epidemic” and as recompense for the defendants’ alleged “unconscionable efforts to maximize profits at the expense of union members’ lives, families and communities.”
The unions say they represent more than 30,000 carpenters and 23,000 heavy equipment operators in Illinois, Indiana and Iowa.
And they noted construction workers “have a higher incidence of opioid-related overdose deaths than any other occupation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
“Workers experiencing pain-related injuries have been overprescribed opioids that have little if any medical benefit and lead to addiction, despair and death, while our welfare funds have been compelled to shoulder the unjustifiable financial burden of related health care and disability payments,” said James Sweeney, president and business manager for Local 150, in a prepared statement.
The unions’ action represents the first such union-led legal action over opioids in Illinois.
The two unions have also partnered on other litigation, however, including lawsuits against the village of Lincolnshire over its attempt to create a local right-to-work zone and against the village to try to win a court order blocking that village and other Illinois local governments from paying dues to the Illinois Municipal League, a lobby organization the unions claimed promoted anti-union policies.