This Aug. 15, 2017 file photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York. Credit: Patrick Sison | AP

PORTLAND, Maine — In an expected move, the city on Thursday brought a lawsuit against companies that make and sell prescription painkillers.

With the filing of the suit, Portland became the first city in Maine to join a national legal push to hold drug companies responsible for the mounting financial and human toll of the opioid crisis.

“This case is about one thing: corporate greed,” states the introduction to the more than 200 page lawsuit filed in Cumberland County Superior Court. “[Drug companies] put their desire for profits above the health and well-being of the City of Portland’s residents.”

Selectmen and councilors in many Maine municipalities — including Portland — have voted to bring suit against opioid manufacturers and distributors in recent months, joining a nationwide effort orchestrated by a New York law firm.

[Portland set to join nationwide lawsuit against opioid manufacturers]

Portland’s suit names 26 defendants including individual doctors and drug companies such as Purdue Pharmaceuticals and Johnson & Johnson. The six-count complaint alleges fraud, unjust enrichment, negligence, negligent marketing, public nuisance, and a violation of Maine’s Unfair Trade Practices Act.

“It’s time that we hold these companies accountable the same way that we held the tobacco companies accountable,” Mayor Ethan Strimling said Thursday, likening the suit to the landmark settlement 46 states won from America’s four largest tobacco companies in 1998.

The city is seeking an unspecified sum of compensatory and punitive damages, as well as legal fees. Announcing the lawsuit outside the perpetually full Milestone Recovery on India Street, Strimling said he would “put 100 percent of [any eventual winnings] into treatment.”

[Bangor joins suit against makers of prescription opioids]

The Healthcare Distribution Alliance, a lobbying group that represents some of the companies Portland is suing, said in a statement that this sort of legal action shows that the city “lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated.”

“Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation,” said the group’s senior vice president, John Parker.

The city will be represented in the case by Auburn law firm Trafton, Matzen, Belleau and Frenette, and Napoli Scholnick of New York. The city’s chief attorney previously said that Portland will pay nothing to bring the suit and would keep two-thirds of any winnings, with the rest going to the firms.

[Maine saw 418 overdose deaths in 2017, continuing a deadly trend]

In December, the Bangor City Council voted unanimously to bring a similar suit but has not yet filed it.

Seventeen total Maine cities, counties and towns are working on bringing such cases, according to lawyer Adam Lee, of Trafton, Matzen, Belleau and Frenette. They reportedly include Biddeford, Saco, Sanford, Auburn and Lewiston.

The lawsuit follows Maine’s deadliest year for overdose deaths. In 2017, 418 people died drug induced deaths, including 57 in Portland.

BDN Staff Writer Alex Acquisto contributed to this report.

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