Meet the ‘Hillbilly Lawyer’ Fighting to Take Down Big Pharma
Inside the massive lawsuit that seeks to assign blame — and financial penalties — for the opioid epidemic
Paul Farrell paced the courtroom as lawyers filed into place: plaintiffs on the left, defendants to the right, briefcases down, folders out. Outside the chambers, Lake Erie glistened through the floor-to-ceiling windows lining the marble hallway of the Carl B. Stokes U.S. Courthouse in Cleveland, Ohio. Farrell, who has silver hair and grayish-blue eyes that can maintain eye contact for an uncomfortably long period of time, darted around the room for hushed conversations and banter with his fellow lawyers. Farrell was restless for the proceedings to start. He knew that about 100 Americans would die of drug overdoses just during the hours-long hearing on that late October morning.
Farrell is a lead attorney on the National Prescription Opiate Litigation, a collection of 1,500 cases that have been brought by communities across the country against the pharmaceutical industry for an ongoing epidemic of addiction and drug-related deaths. Farrell and a team of more than 100 plaintiff’s lawyers argue that by flooding U.S. communities with painkillers, drug manufacturers like Purdue Pharma, Teva, and Janssen — and the companies that distribute their pills — violated federal laws by creating what’s called a “public nuisance.” For counties throughout the country wrestling with the death and despair wrought by the epidemic, this lawsuit represents their best chance to force a moral reckoning with those they deem responsible and bring their communities some badly needed financial relief and healing.
The lawsuit hinges on uncovering evidence that drugmakers and distributors knew their products caused harm, that they marketed them deceptively, and that they pushed opioids into communities in quantities that far outweighed any genuine medical need. Providing that evidence means acquiring internal documents, interrogating company employees, and scrutinizing records from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) of where and when controlled substances have been sold. In what’s poised to be one of the biggest legal fights of the opioid epidemic, the attorney teams will argue a central question: Who is responsible for the…