Lake County is poised to join a national wave of lawsuits against the makers of opioid-based painkillers.
The county commissioners have retained a group of Texas- and Montana-based law firms to represent them in a lawsuit against several drug manufacturers. This step links Lake County to hundreds of other local governments who charge the companies with stoking the opioid-abuse crisis.
The Centers for Disease Control report that overdose deaths from prescription opioids increased fivefold from 1999 to 2016, claiming more than 200,000 Americans in that time. Prescription opioid overdoses have killed 700 Montanans since 2000, according to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.
This problem has drained county resources, said Commissioner Dave Stipe. “We know that there were costs, just like we know how meth costs us money.”
In recent years, state attorneys general, and local and tribal governments, have started trying to recoup these costs by taking the drug makers to court, accusing them of deceptive marketing practices that denied or downplayed the painkillers’ risks. One of their main targets, Purdue Pharma Inc., did not reply for a request for comment on this story, but has denied these allegations when they're raised in other lawsuits, and stressed its commitment to being part of a solution to the opioid epidemic.
In May, hundreds of these cases were bundled together in a massive multidistrict litigation in the federal court system’s Northern District of Ohio, where Judge Dan Aaron Polster will start hearing the first cases next year.
One of the key firms involved in this litigation, Dallas-based Simon Greenstone Panatier Bartlett P.C., has partnered with Montana firms to represent Treasure State communities.
“Of the 56 counties, the most populated counties have been approached,” said attorney Scott Stearns, a shareholder at Missoula's Boone Karlberg P.C. The firm, in conjunction with Simon Greenstone and others in the state, now represents Cascade and Gallatin counties, as well as Anaconda-Deer Lodge and Great Falls.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have secured representation from Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry LLP — a firm specializing in Indian law — in partnership with other firms, but they have not yet filed any complaints.
Stearns explained that, when filed, Lake County’s complaint will closely resemble the one that Cascade County filed last November. It accuses Purdue and several other drug manufacturers of fielding a deceptive, multi-pronged marketing campaign that transformed opioids from a rarely-used painkiller into a profitable product line, at devastating financial and human cost.
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox made similar accusations against drug makers in a lawsuit currently pending in state court. But while that case seeks court-ordered penalties for the drug makers’ alleged violations of state laws, as well as reimbursement of Medicaid and other state funds that Purdue obtained through its activities, Commissioner Stipe explained that Lake County is focused on other needs.
“We’re suing for what it costs the police to respond, what it costs the court to prosecute, what it costs the health department” — the local toll of the opioid epidemic.
“It’s under the theory of, ‘You broke it, now you have to buy it,’” Stearns said. “They’ve broken the system here in America, and now they have to pay for the solution, and the solution is usually at the community level.”
At the same time, “we want to be somewhat selective” in picking cases. “We want to make the best case we can, and some counties have more clear-cut cases than others.” Stearns and his colleagues identified Lake County and the Flathead Indian Reservation as areas with “more of an opioid and drug problem than other areas that lead to jail overcrowding and dependent-neglect” cases.
George Simpson, a sergeant with the Polson Police Department, has seen these challenges firsthand. “When you have users, that obviously becomes a strain on first responder resources, and we try as hard as we can,” he said. His agency is currently training officers to administer naloxone, a lifesaving nasal-spray medication that counteracts the effects of an opioid overdose.
But the challenge goes far beyond reviving users. “You start to see an increase in property crimes, you start to see an increase in domestic violence,” as users’ habits prompt them to steal, and sour their relationships. “Treatment centers can be expensive,” too, he added.
All of these ills have drained public coffers in Lake County, Stipe said. “We don’t have the hard data yet, but we know for sure that some of the people who served hard time in jail … were there because of opioid addiction,” he said. Stearns agrees. “Early on we recognized Lake County as an important client to have to tell the full Montana story,” he said.
Under the retention agreement, the law firms will receive compensation up to 25 percent of gross recovery from the case, in addition to attorney’s fees and litigation-associated costs. “In the event that no recovery is realized, the law firms shall receive no compensation or reimbursement,” the contract states.
While a county employee will be designated to monitor the claims, Lake County is not required to assign a staff member to pursue them. “Lake County and the Law Firms both recognize that the claims present numerous factual and legal obstacles and that no assurance of success on the claims has or can be made,” according to the retention agreement.
Some Montana localities have been wary about litigating their opioid problems. In January, Butte-Silver Bow County Commissioners voted against joining the fight, citing the lawyers’ profit motives, the litigious trends in U.S. society and the absence of solid local data on the matter.
Missoula County Commissioners voiced similar concerns last November, with Deputy County Attorney John Hart telling the Missoula Current that “we have not seen, at least from a criminal justice standpoint, a significant opioid problem in Missoula County that’s costing us a lot of money and that we can quantify.”
In a follow-up email to the Missoulian, Hart said that County Commissioners did discuss the topic over the summer, but “no decisions have been made” yet. The City of Missoula has not yet decided whether to take part.
Lake County will need to tally the costs of its opioid problem for inclusion in a Plaintiff Fact Sheet. Commissioner Stipe expects that any damages or settlement funds that reach Lake County will be distributed to the involved groups in proportion to the costs they bore.
However the litigation plays out, the Polson Police Department's Simpson predicts that resolving the problem will take time.
"The whole country didn't get in this problem overnight, so it's not going to be an overnight solution."