A class action lawsuit was filed Monday (Feb. 26) against several pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributers on behalf of babies born in Louisiana with opioid addictions.
The suit, filed in the 22nd Judicial District Court in St. Tammany Parish on behalf of a child identified by the initials K.E.R, seeks money to cover long-term treatment for K.E.R. and other infants who are born suffering opioid withdrawals.
Defendants named in the lawsuit include Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, and Teva Pharmaceuticals among other drug manufacturers and distributors.
The child identified in the suit was born addicted to opioids with a condition called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS, according to the lawsuit. The condition is typically diagnosed in babies that have had chronic fetal exposure to substances that were used or abused by their mother during pregnancy. NAS sets in once the baby is abruptly removed from exposure after birth.
K.E.R.’s mother was prescribed opioid pain killers to treat lower back pain after she was involved in a car accident before becoming pregnant. She became addicted and continued to use opioids, including while she was pregnant with K.E.R., according to the lawsuit.
K.E.R., now 3 years-old, has undergone behavioral, speech and hearing therapy to manage the long-term effects of opioid exposure while in the womb, the lawsuit says.
The legal team representing the toddler is seeking damage payments to fund long-term treatment for K.E.R. as well as any families with babies born in Louisiana with opioid-related NAS who wish to join the lawsuit. The suit does not list the total amount of damages it seeks.
The case does not cite the exact number of children born with NAS resulting from prescription opioid addiction in Louisiana, but the legal team behind it estimates the population is large based on the number of Medicaid enrollees who were also consuming opioids at some point during their pregnancy, a figure tracked by the federal social insurance program.
Louisiana has more than 1.4 million Medicaid enrollees. One out of every five Medicaid-served mothers consumed opioids at some point during their pregnancy, according to figures cited in the lawsuit.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that from 2000 to 2012 there was a five-fold increase in the number of babies born with NAS syndrome as a result of opioid use in the United States. In 2012 the organization estimated a total of 21,732 babies were born suffering from opioid withdrawals.
The group now estimates a baby suffering from opioid withdrawals is born every 25 minutes in the U.S.
K.E.R is the only named plaintiff in the St. Tammany lawsuit, but attorneys representing the family say the case is open to all families with babies born with opioid-related NAS in Louisiana. The New Orleans law firm Martzell, Bickford & Centola A.P.C. and the Cooper Law Firm are representing K.E.R.’s family.
The suit accuses the companies named as defendants of “developing a well-funded, sophisticated and deceptive marketing scheme targeted at physicians and consumers,” resulting in widespread addiction.
“Facts show that pharmaceutical drug companies and their distribution partners exaggerated the benefits of opioids and downplayed risks and consequences,” said Scott Bickford, an attorney with Martzell, Bickford & Centola. “They knew the drugs were being overly prescribed yet failed to warn doctors of the extremely addictive nature of the narcotics and the need to strictly limit and monitor the dose.”
The lawsuit was crafted by a team of legal and medical experts including Dr. Kanwaljeet J.S. “Sunny” Anand, the chief of neonatal pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine, and Brent Bell, a Houston-based physician assistant with 26 years in the field of radiation oncology.
“Newborn babies are the most vulnerable citizens, their lives and developmental potential are disrupted by Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, but arrangements for their short-term and long-term care have been ignored until now,” Anand said in a statement.
At a Tuesday (Feb. 27) press conference, Bell explained one of the main reasons for this lawsuit is to assure there is a legal structure in place to ensure any damages paid out by pharmaceutical companies and manufacturers go to rehabilitation programs, substance abuse treatment facilities, inpatient treatment facilities and programs in rural areas with less access to substance-abuse help.
Bell pointed to the 1990s class action tobacco suits as an example of what can happen when that structure is absent. At the time, lawsuits were filed against the four major tobacco companies by attorneys general of 46 states to cover the healthcare related costs from tobacco use. Tobacco companies eventually agreed to pay Louisiana $206 billion over 25 years in a 1998 agreement.
Bell and others on the team representing K.E.R noted there was no path for how states should have set aside the tobacco money to treat patients with healthcare costs related to tobacco use.
“We do not want the money obtained by the lawyers to be distributed by political interest as it was in the tobacco settlement,” Bell said. “The big tobacco money did not go to treat cancers or educate kids.”
Bell said the settlement structure the lawsuit seeks to establish would direct settlement dollars to academic and research institutions, including institutions that specialize in neonatal training, and integrative medicine and prevention.