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Paul J. Hanly Jr., key lawyer in opioid litigation, dies at 70

Mr. Hanly was one of several key lawyers in the ongoing litigation against companies that produced and distributed opioid painkillers. (Simmons Hanly Conroy)

Paul J. Hanly Jr., a trial lawyer who was a lead counsel in the ongoing litigation against companies that produced and distributed the painkillers that have fueled the epidemic of opioid addiction, one of the most sprawling legal actions in U.S. history, died May 22 at his home in Miami Beach. He was 70.

He was diagnosed with anaplastic thyroid cancer in December, said his son Jake Hanly. Mr. Hanly was a named shareholder in the New York office of the law firm Simmons Hanly Conroy.

Mr. Hanly was “a titan amongst the pantheon of American trial lawyers,” Paul T. Farrell Jr., a fellow lead counsel in the opioid litigation, wrote in an email after Mr. Hanly’s death.

Mr. Hanly began his career as a defense lawyer, representing clients including one of the world’s largest asbestos companies amid an onslaught of product liability lawsuits, but he shifted specialties about two decades ago to exclusively represent plaintiffs. He was inspired by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, his son said, to practice law as “a public service.”

Mr. Hanly helped represent hundreds of victims and families in lawsuits related to the attacks. In 2019, he helped win a $60 million settlement on behalf of victims of alleged sexual abuse at a church-sponsored school in Haiti. He handled lawsuits over defective drugs and medical devices as well as antitrust claims, among other matters.

But he was most known for his work on lawsuits stemming from the opioid crisis, which has resulted in more than 500,000 deaths in the United States.

The Opioid Files: Follow The Post’s investigation of the opioid epidemic

“The epidemic that we face today is the result of a decades-long conspiracy not unlike the conspiracy that tobacco companies engaged in many years ago,” Mr. Hanly told an interviewer in 2017, referring to the tobacco industry’s role in promoting the sale of cigarettes despite overwhelming evidence that its products caused cancer. In the opioid epidemic, the pharmaceutical industry is accused of willfully minimizing evidence of the addictive qualities of opioid drugs.

In the early 2000s, Mr. Hanly and a law partner, Jayne Conroy, sued Purdue Pharma, the drug company owned by the Sackler family, on behalf of 5,000 people who had become addicted to the painkilling drug OxyContin.

The documents obtained through the discovery process “demonstrated that this company had set out to perpetrate a fraud on the entire medical community,” Mr. Hanly told the New Yorker magazine in 2017. “These pronouncements about how safe the drug was emanated from the marketing department, not the scientific department. It was pretty shocking. They just made this stuff up.”

In 2007, the parties reached a settlement of $75 million — according to the health news site STAT, “one of the few instances . . . in which a drug maker agreed to pay individual patients who alleged that it had underplayed the addiction risk of its medications.”

In 2018, U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster of the Northern District of Ohio appointed Mr. Hanly co-lead counsel in the multi­district litigation against companies that produced, promoted and distributed opioid painkillers.

(Multidistrict litigation is a legal procedure by which multiple lawsuits originating in different jurisdictions are combined and handled in a single federal court. The other lead co-counsels were Farrell, of the firm Farrell & Fuller, and Joseph F. Rice of Motley Rice.)

Mr. Hanly’s earlier defense work earned him “tremendous credibility” throughout the bar, Rice said in an interview. “Because of that trust, and because of that confidence people had in Paul, he was ideal to be one of the co-leads in this extremely complex opioid litigation.”

The multidistrict litigation involves “thousands of cities, counties and tribes” seeking compensation for the effects of the opioid epidemic on their communities, Conroy wrote in an email, “and names defendants from every link in the chain of opioid manufacture, distribution and dispensing.”

“The defendants are accused of aggressively marketing opioids while downplaying addiction and overdose risks,” she continued, “and for failing to monitor and report suspicious opioid orders and prescriptions, as required by law, which all contributed to this country’s deadly opioid epidemic and the costs borne by communities to deal with it.”

In 2019, Simmons Hanly Conroy announced that a $325 million settlement had been reached for Cuyahoga and Summit counties in Ohio, averting what would have been the first trial in the multidistrict litigation. That litigation is pending, as are numerous other opioid-related cases across the United States.

Paul James Hanly Jr. was born in Jersey City on April 18, 1951. His father worked for the government as a prison warden and hospital administrator, and his mother was a homemaker. His maternal grandfather, John V. Kenny, was mayor of Jersey City and a local political power broker who served time in prison after pleading guilty to federal charges of income tax evasion.

Mr. Hanly studied philosophy at Cornell University, where he graduated in 1974, and at Cambridge University in England, where he earned a master’s degree in 1976. He obtained a law degree from Georgetown University in 1979 and clerked for a federal judge in New Jersey before beginning his legal practice.

Mr. Hanly’s marriage to Joyce Roquemore ended in divorce. Survivors include their three children, Jake Hanly of New York, Burton Hanly of Cambridge, Mass., and Edith Hanly of New Orleans; a brother and a sister.

Mr. Hanly cut an unusual figure in the courtroom. Over many years, he had assembled a bespoke wardrobe, favoring colors — even for his socks — that some of his more staid colleagues might have considered showy. In his book “Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty,” author Patrick Radden Keefe depicted Mr. Hanly admiringly as looking “like a lawyer in a ‘Dick Tracy’ cartoon.”

In his law office, he kept a collection of marketing items that Purdue Pharma had used to promote OxyContin — among them, the publication STAT reported, a stuffed animal clad in an OxyContin T-shirt and a tiny calculator trumpeting the company’s sales.

“They’re phenomenal pieces of evidence to show to a jury,” he said.

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