The Rochester City School District and other districts across the country are poised to settle a pair of lawsuits against pharmaceutical manufacturers for unethical behavior in distributing opioids, bringing an unspecified pot of money for programs intended to combat the effects of opioid addiction.
The lawsuits were against Purdue and Mallinckrodt, two large drug companies that filed for bankruptcy protection in the face of massive claims from individuals and governments affected by their alleged indiscriminate distribution of highly addictive opioids.
Both lawsuits involve dozens of school districts across the country. RCSD also remains involved in one large outstanding class-action lawsuit and another against a third company in bankruptcy, the Rochester Drug Cooperative, General Counsel Steve Carling said.
“We expect as time goes on we’ll see more of these type of settlements, either from bankruptcies or direct action,” Carling said.
The lawsuits make two claims: first, that students have been harmed by the companies’ opioid distribution, either because they themselves became addicted or because their parents or guardians did.
“Because of Defendants’ horrific wrongdoing, which created the worst man-made
epidemic in history, births of children with prenatal opioid exposure have increased
exponentially since the onslaught of the opioid epidemic, and they show no signs of slowing down,” the plaintiffs in one class-action suit wrote. “As a result, our nations’ public schools will be straddled with the extra costs of education of children with prenatal opioid exposure for years to come.”
Second, RCSD and other districts are seeking damages for the harm done to employees. RCSD is self-insured and therefore has faced mounting expenses for drug counseling, for instance.
‘All the help we can get’
Statistics compiled by Common Ground Health from 2014-16 show that urban residents were by far the most likely to visit the emergency room for an opioid overdose.
White and Latino people were the hardest hit across all geographic sectors. But urban Black residents, too, visited the emergency room at a greater rate than white or Latino people in suburban or rural areas.
No other districts in Monroe County are involved in the lawsuits; neither are any of New York’s other large urban districts. RCSD became involved in litigation at the suggestion of board member Ricardo Adams.
The idea came shortly after an issue with an employee abusing opioids, he said.
“I felt really strongly about fighting back and resisting the big pharmaceutical companies,” he said. “Anything we can do to help families.”
The Purdue and Mallinckrodt lawsuits have not yet been officially settled. The school board voted last week to agree to settle them.
Because RCSD has been one of the most active parties in the litigation, it likely will receive a relatively small direct cash award, Carling said. Litigation attorney Alison Moyer has been spearheading the effort.
A potentially greater pool of money also will be made available to fund programs in school districts meant to address problems caused among students, families and staff members who abused opioids.
That could mean, for instance, additional funding for special education services for children born with cognitive disabilities due to their parents abusing opioids. Carling likened the opioid class-action lawsuit to earlier campaigns regarding tobacco and lead paint.
“We’re a struggling community,” Adams said. “We need all the help we can get.”
Contact staff writer Justin Murphy at [email protected].