San Mateo County files lawsuit against McKinsey for pushing local opioid sales

FILE - In this photo illustration, the OxyContin painkiller drug logo produced by Purdue Pharma is displayed on a smartphone. (Photo Illustration by Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

San Mateo County has filed a lawsuit against McKinsey & Company, alleging that the consulting firm helped push opioid sales in the county.

Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy LLP, the law firm representing the county, alleges that McKinsey helped opioid manufacturers increase drug sales by serving as marketing advisor to companies like Purdue Pharma. Purdue Pharma makes OxyContin, a prescription pain medication commonly involved in opioid overdose deaths.

The lawsuit also claims that McKinsey helped Purdue protect its public image and helped suppress negative press from the families of overdose victims. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency in 2017 amid a rise in opioid-related overdose deaths. In 2019, more than 70 percent of drug overdose deaths nationwide involved an opioid, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In San Mateo County, the number of deaths from opioids has steadily increased in recent years. County data shows that in 2015, there were 60 drug-induced deaths, with about 20 directly tied to opioid use. Doctors wrote nearly 350,000 opioid prescriptions in the county that year.

In the next two years, the number of drug and opioid-related deaths increased countywide and county health officials estimate that thousands of residents are dependent on opioids.

Purdue Pharma has already faced scrutiny and pleaded guilty in 2020 to criminal charges related to its role in the opioid crisis.

The county's complaint against McKinsey, dated Tuesday, states that "McKinsey knew of the dangers of opioids, and of Purdue's misconduct, but nonetheless advised and encouraged Purdue to improperly market and sell OxyContin."

Dealing with the epidemic has also cost the county millions of dollars for expenses related to drug treatment, emergency room visits, law enforcement and social services such as helping children whose parents are addicted to opioids.

San Mateo County Counsel John Beiers said, "This lawsuit is a continuation of our efforts to pursue the corporate bad actors who have caused the opioid epidemic."

In 2018 and 2019, the county sued opioid distributors and manufacturers, including Purdue Pharma, to recover the costs of addressing the opioid epidemic. These cases are pending in federal court in Ohio.

San Mateo County is the first California county to sue McKinsey for its alleged involvement in the opioid crisis. The county joins jurisdictions across the nation that have already filed similar lawsuits against McKinsey as part of a multi-district litigation, a group of about 50 lawsuits pending before Judge Charles Breyer in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Anne Marie Murphy, of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, said that she expects more cases from other California counties to be filed this week.

McKinsey officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In filing the lawsuit, the county hopes to recover the money spent dealing with the opioid epidemic and to eliminate the "hazard to public health and safety."

San Mateo County Health recommends that "If you or someone you know are taking opioids and think you may be dependent, talk to your doctor or call San Mateo County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services at 1-800-686-0101."

The full complaint is available online, and is attached below.