MACHIAS — Washington County, which had the highest death rate for opioid overdoses of any county in Maine in 2016, is taking legal action.
The county has joined a growing list of Maine municipalities suing pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and distribute opioids.
The Washington County lawsuit, filed Jan. 10, argues that those companies continued to market — and encourage doctors to prescribe — painkillers despite knowing the likelihood of addiction among patients.
The case is being handled by the Auburn law firm of Trafton, Matzen, Belleau & Frenette LLP, which has partnered with Napoli Shkolnic PLLC, a New York law firm. The Washington County Commissioners voted unanimously late last year to sue.
The suit, which names 28 manufacturers of opioids as defendants, has been joined by 12 other counties in Maine. Several other cities in the state, including Portland, Lewiston, Bangor, and Auburn also have filed similar lawsuits.
Washington County does not incur any costs by joining the lawsuit, and the law firm would recoup 25 percent of any money awarded.
As the opioid epidemic has spread across the country, Washington County has been at the epicenter of the issue in Maine.
According to the Maine Shared Health Needs Assessment, there were between 350 and 450 substance abuse hospitalizations in Washington County in 2015.
In 2016, there were 20 opioid deaths in the county. Like many rural areas, there is a dearth of substance abuse counselors and residential recovery centers.
Statewide, the problem is also pronounced. There were 418 deaths related to overdose in 2017, of which 354 were caused by opioids. The number of opioid related deaths in Maine increased 125 percent between 2010 and 2016.
According to data released by the Maine Attorney General’s Office, statewide opioid-related deaths from January through September of 2018 decreased slightly from the previous year, and the 307 projected opioid-related deaths are down 13 percent from 2017. That includes numbers for pharmaceutical opioids, heroin and fentanyl, a powerful pain medication that is often produced illegally and mixed with other drugs.
There is no current timetable for how the lawsuits would play out in court. Nationwide, there are roughly 1,500 similar cases moving through federal courts.