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Philly DA Krasner sues Pa. AG Shapiro’s office over opioid settlement

The Philadelphia District Attorney's office filed suit Thursday against the Pennsylvania Attorney General over a proposed opioid settlement.

District Attorney Larry Krasner in West Philadelphia on July 22, 2021. Krasner's office filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office over a proposed opioid settlement.
District Attorney Larry Krasner in West Philadelphia on July 22, 2021. Krasner's office filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office over a proposed opioid settlement.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia district attorney is refusing to give up an opioid lawsuit filed in 2018, as state attorneys general seek to drum up support for a $26 billion settlement with drug distributors and a drug manufacturer.

DA Larry Krasner’s office is now suing the office of Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a day after Shapiro announced an opioid settlement deal that Shapiro said would provide the state with up to $1 billion over 18 years. The suit is asking Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court to declare that the AG’s office doesn’t have the authority to give up Krasner’s claims in the settlement.

Krasner contends that his suit could generate more money for the city.

The new complaint from Krasner focuses on the settlement agreement with the three major U.S. drug distributors — including Conshohocken-based AmerisourceBergen — in which they’d pay up to $21 billion combined to resolve thousands of lawsuits filed nationwide. The companies, accused of failing to flag suspicious orders of prescription opioids, have denied wrongdoing.

Shapiro was part of a small, bipartisan group of state attorneys general involved in negotiating the deal that was announced Wednesday. States now have a month to join, and over the next several months, a large number of counties and cities would also need to give up their opioid lawsuits to maximize the payouts under the settlement.

Krasner said he wants a court “to make it clear that, no, the attorney general cannot take away our lawsuit, has no right to take away our lawsuit.”

“There seems to be an effort on the part of this settlement to somehow put attorneys general in a position where they can yank the rug out of every district attorney in the state who filed one of these cases,” Krasner added during a Thursday press conference.

A spokesperson for Shapiro’s office said: “The proposed settlement doesn’t stop any local jurisdiction from pursuing its own litigation if they choose not to participate” in the agreement.

“We’re puzzled that the Philadelphia District Attorney would take less than 24 hours to analyze a complex nationwide framework before suing our office and misrepresenting the facts to Pennsylvanians,” said the spokesperson, Molly Stieber.

The proposed settlement, Stieber said “is the only way to jump-start a billion dollars’ worth of treatment for communities in need anytime soon. The alternative is to make families wait years for an uncertain outcome that could leave them with nothing.”

An AmerisourceBergen spokesperson had no comment on Krasner’s new complaint. Cardinal Health, another distributor, had no comment, and McKesson did not respond Thursday. In a joint statement Wednesday, all three distributors said that they believed the proposed settlement would deliver “meaningful relief to communities” across the country and that they were prepared to defend against lawsuits if a settlement couldn’t be finalized.

Krasner’s 2018 opioid suit is one of dozens filed by municipalities, fellow district attorneys, and others against drug companies, and which are being coordinated by the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas. The City of Philadelphia has a pending suit, too, and Mayor Jim Kenney also criticized the settlement deal Wednesday as being too low.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is not alone in objecting to the new proposed settlement. Washington state’s attorney general already said that he is rejecting the proposal.

On Thursday, Krasner said that his opioid suit has a better chance of netting more money for Philadelphia than the attorney generals’ settlement.

The DA estimates that Philadelphia would get “less than $10 million per year” from the settlement, according to the complaint. His lawsuit doesn’t say how it calculated the figure.

“We trust Philadelphia juries. We trust Philadelphia judges. We want justice, and we don’t see that in this settlement,” Krasner said. A trial date is not scheduled yet for the DA’s suit.

Krasner said outside lawyers working on the case for the DA’s office are working on a contingent basis: “There is no expense coming from the DA’s office unless there’s a victory,” he said.

A multi-billion-dollar proposed settlement “sounds like a lot of money, but it’s paid out over many years,” and a chunk of it will also go to pay lawyers, said Scott Burris, a Temple University law professor who runs the university’s Center for Public Health Law research.

“A city like Philadelphia looks at what its share might be when all the deductions are made,” Burris said. “They think we can do better on our own.”

Burris noted that settlements in opioid suits are “a Band-Aid.” Largely, he said, they cover costs that communities incur due to the opioid epidemic: 911 calls, hospital treatments, and distributing harm-reduction measures such as the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone.

“But it doesn’t really begin to get at the human cost,” Burris said.

Philadelphia has one of the worst overdose crises of any big city in America. Last year, 1,214 people died of overdoses in the city, the second-highest overdose death toll ever recorded here.

The crisis was particularly pronounced in the Black community, with nearly 30% more Black residents dying of overdoses than in 2019.

These days, most drug deaths in the city are fueled by illicit fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid that has contaminated much of the city’s drug supply.

But in the mid-2000s, sales of prescription pharmaceuticals flooded Philadelphia, especially in the neighborhoods that would later be hit hardest by overdoses, Kensington and South Philadelphia. From 2006 to 2012, more opioid painkillers were sold to pharmacies in and around Kensington than nearly anywhere else in Pennsylvania.