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County could join opioid crisis lawsuit

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County could join a growing list of Virginia localities in litigation related to the opioid abuse crisis.

County Attorney Jason Ham advised the Board of Supervisors at its Aug. 2 meeting that three law firms want to represent the locality in a lawsuit that claims prescription drug manufacturers and distributors aided in the opioid addiction crisis. The group of law firms represents 18 localities in Virginia.

Ham recommended that the county join the plaintiffs in the litigation. He would not represent the county if the board joined in the lawsuit.

The board took no action on the retainer agreement at its meeting, but Assistant County Administrator Evan Vass said supervisors could take action at their Aug. 28 meeting and would need to vote to enter into the retainer agreement.

Ham recalled that the lawyers’ group provided information on the lawsuit at the Local Government Attorneys of Virginia meeting last fall.  He added that he met recently with the law firms to discuss the case and the potential for the county to join other plaintiffs. Ham and the Board of Supervisors talked about entering into a retainer with the law firms and join the other localities.

“It’s certainly not determined that anyone has done anything wrong,” Ham told the board. “Considering the high-dollar, giant companies that they’re going after and how many of them, I would say it’s likely there would be some settlement at some point. How much of that would end up going to the county should the county join is unknown.”

The county would be liable for covering its share of the costs of the litigation, such as fees paid for expert witnesses and filing, Ham said.

“In a worse-case scenario, it’s theoretically possible that we might end up having to pay the expense of money on costs for nothing,” Ham warned. “I would call that extremely unlikely given the volume of folks that are involved in this.”

Ham said he’s read complaints filed in the litigation and while he doesn’t predict an “easy victory” for the plaintiffs, the attorneys have made strong arguments.

“We’ve got a lot of people in jail,” Ham said. “Health insurance rates potentially increase. Public safety service providers – we’ve got the Narcan now. Too many narcotics cost us money and there are financial incentives for the folks manufacturing them, the folks distributing them and for the insurance companies deciding which one is on which tier level, etc.”

“What it amounts to, according to these two attorneys, is that a giant flood of narcotics and people have made a lot of money doing that and (I) don’t know if they’ve actually done anything illegal but there are tort and public-nuisance claims” Ham added.

Supervisors Chairman Conrad Helsley pointed out that not only has the opioid abuse epidemic cost money; it’s also cost lives.

The Virginia Department of Health statistics for 2016, the most recent information available, shows that the state experienced 803 deaths from overdoses on fentanyl and/or heroin and 465 deaths from overdoses on prescription opioids. Opioid overdoses resulted in more than 8,700 visits to emergency departments statewide in 2016. The statistics show three deaths from overdoses on prescription opioids and three deaths from fentanyl and/or heroin in 2016.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed Virginia as one of many states that showed a statistically significant increase in the death rate from drug overdoses from 2015 to 2016. The CDC reported that Virginia had 1,405 overall drug-overdose deaths in 2016. The CDC also reported that opioids – both illegal and prescription – drive drug overdose deaths. County Health Rankings & Roadmaps reported that Shenandoah County experienced 15 drug overdose deaths from 2012-2014 according to the program’s latest data.

The retainer agreement states that Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP and Kaufman & Canoles PC would serve as lead counsel in the investigation and prosecution of any legal action against Purdue Pharma Inc., the Purdue Frederick Company Inc., Mallinckrodt, Endo Health Solutions Inc., Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc., McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health Inc., AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation, CVS Health, Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., Pharmacy Benefit Managers and any other relevant defendants “in connection with the manufacture, marketing, sale and distribution of prescription opioid products and the harm created therefrom to Client.” The legal firms also intend to enter into a co-counsel agreement with The Cicala Law Firm PLLC, the retainer agreement states.

Alexandria and the counties of Dickenson and Washington initiated litigation against manufacturers, distributors and pharmacy benefit managers claiming the parties played a role in creating a public health emergency caused by prescription opioids, according to information provided by Sanford Heisler Sharp.

Board members Helsley, Vice Chairman John R. “Dick” Neese and Supervisors Karl Roulston, Dennis Morris, Steve Baker and Richard Walker attended the Aug. 2 meeting along with Ham, Vass and County Administrator Mary T. Price.

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