When he was Bristol County’s district attorney, Sam Sutter prosecuted drug dealers on the streets and sought changes in the law to keep them locked up until trial.
Now as a defense lawyer in Fall River, where he also served a term as mayor, he is working with his sister-in-law Julianne Feliz to represent those devastated by the opioid crisis in a class action suit against Purdue Pharma.
The two lawyers announced Wednesday they have filed and will be filing dozens of claims, including one on behalf of a family in the Taunton and Rehoboth area who paid “tens of thousands of dollars” for their son’s legal fees and drug treatment, Feliz said.
While keeping the client confidential, Felix said the man became addicted after a doctor prescribed him OxyContin, the highly addictive painkiller manufactured by Purdue. The doctor was prosecuted by Sutter when he was district attorney.
After 36 states including Massachusetts filed suits against the company, it filed for bankruptcy in New York. Purdue set aside $10 billion to $12 billion to settle personal injury claims. As of this time, approximately 30,000 or more claims across the country have been filed, according to the lawyers.
The deadline to file a claim has been extended to July 30 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite the impact of the opioid crisis, Sutter and Feliz say only 671 claims from Massachusetts have been filed against Purdue.
“It’s a small number when you consider all the people devastated by this,” said Sutter, who as an assistant district attorney was the supervising prosecutor in Attleboro District Court.
In 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 67,367 people died of opioid abuse — 2,241 from Massachusetts.
The reason why so few claims from the state have been filed are complex, the lawyers said. Sutter said Purdue funded an ad campaign to publicize the settlement money available and how to file a claim. But the ads were confusing, especially for someone coping with sobriety or battling addiction, he said.
Feliz said the emotional toll on families may also be a reason for the small number of claims. The people she has talked to about the lawsuit come in her office with faces filled with sadness and leave the same way, she said.
“Some people don’t want to revisit those demons,” said Feliz, who has been a lawyer for 22 years concentrating on juvenile and family law.
Sutter, a lawyer for 36 years, said many people got addicted after being prescribed OxyContin or Percocet and turned to heroin and fentanyl as a cheaper alternative.
“Thousands of families and vulnerable children have been collaterally damaged by what started out as a simple accident or injury which then led to a prescription or over-prescription leading to addiction,” Feliz said.
In her lawsuit against the company, state Attorney General Maura Healy said eight members of the Richard Sackler family were “personally responsible” for the deceptive marketing practices. The Sackler family owns Purdue.