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September 26, 2017

IBEW Local 98 to sue prescription opioid manufacturers

The union said it has lost eight members to opioid-related deaths

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 is preparing a lawsuit against the companies that make and market prescription opioids, the union announced on Tuesday.

The lawsuit would come as Local 98 experiences an addiction crisis that mirrors the opioid epidemic sweeping the United States. There were eight opioid-related deaths of members in the last year, Business Manager John Dougherty said.

"IBEW Local 98 will no longer allow the manufacturers and marketers of these deadly drugs to peddle their poison to our members without facing severe consequences," Dougherty said in a statement. "I have seen far too many of our members lose their lives to opioids. It's a national epidemic and I believe the only way to get the attention of Big Pharma is to hit them in the wallet."

Before filing the lawsuit, Local 98 will assess whether the national IBEW and any affiliates in Pennsylvania would like to join, Dougherty said. The Philadelphia Building Trades also will be given an opportunity to join. 

The suit has the potential to grow into a class-action lawsuit, Dougherty said.

Dougherty said union workers consistently work through injuries so that they don't miss any jobs, a factor that compounds their pain and can lead to addiction.

Earlier this year, Local 98 changed the opioid prescription policy in its provider's health plan to limit prescriptions to a five-day maximum. The plan previously allowed for unlimited prescriptions.

"We researched it and found that for those Local 98 members who received opioid prescriptions of five days or less, the addiction rate was 10 percent," Dougherty said in his statement. "For those who received opioid prescriptions of 10 days' duration or more, the addiction rate jumped to 25 percent. We had to change the policy for the health and safety of our members."

In a phone interview, Dougherty said some Local 98 members have become addicted to painkillers like Percocet and Oxycontin after suffering injuries. Some later became addicted to heroin.

Dougherty, who referred to his members as his "friends and family," noted that Local 98 also has relied on the Allied Trades Assistance Program to combat drug addiction and become bigger advocates of drug testing.

"We're going to do something about it," Dougherty said. "We're going to do everything we can to try to reverse this and to try to prevent anybody else from dying" due to opioid abuse.

That includes litigation, he said. The union intends to file a lawsuit in Philadelphia County within the next week. Defendants have not been named.

"This is going to be a very complicated complaint," Dougherty said. "Obviously, by the time we're done, there will be one or two additions. It should be coming out shortly."

The proposed lawsuit follows a similar lawsuit filed last week by Delaware County, the first Pennsylvania county to sue manufacturers. The suit was filed against 11 drugmakers and their consulting doctors.