FRONT ROYAL – The Warren County Board of Supervisors has joined a class-action lawsuit against drug manufacturers and distributors.
Supervisors Chairman Dan Murray said over the phone that the supervisors have long considered the lawsuit but held off because it was initially asked of the county to share expenses. Eventually, he said an agreement was reached where the county will not pay for legal services.
According to an agenda item written by former County Attorney Dan Whitten, 25 percent of any reward the county receives will be used to pay lawyers.
Murray said the opioid situation is an “epidemic” and noted that Warren County is “hit hard” because of its location at the crossroads of interstates 66 and 81.
“So we’re actually a corridor to move the drugs through and if they’re moving them through, they’re coming here,” he said.
According to crime statistics released by the Virginia State Police, Warren County saw 149 drug-related narcotics incidents in 2018, compared to 116 in 2017. In Front Royal, those statistics showed 132 narcotic offenses in 2019 compared to 108 in 2017.
Sheriff Mike Arnold stated in an email that it is difficult to say how much time the office spends dealing with opioids because “that stat is unknown.” He added that it is possible officers could respond to a larceny and have no idea if it was drug-related.
According to statistics provided by Warren County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Phillip Henry, the department’s opioid-related expenses — including equipment, training and time responding — were an estimated $19,144 in fiscal year 2017-18 and $22,825 in fiscal year 2018-19. That estimate does not include how much time officers spent in court for opioid cases.
A resolution passed by the supervisors declaring the opioid crises a public nuisance states that “Warren County has expended, and is expending, and will continue to expend in the future substantial County funds to respond to the serious public health and safety crisis involving all types of substance misuse, addiction, morbidity, and mortality.” The opioid issue, according to the resolution, “must be abated for the benefit of Warren County and its residents.”
The resolution states that the county “has seen overdoses and death that have been attributable to prescription opioids, has seen an increase in heroin and/or fentanyl overdoses and deaths and is determined to take proactive measures to mitigate further increases.”
Citing data from the Virginia Department of Health, the resolution states that there were seven local deaths each in 2012, 2015 and 2016 attributed to prescription opioid overdoses. The resolution also points to state health department statistics stating that between 2011-2016 Warren County newborns exceeded the national average of neonatal abstinence syndrome, which is a disease that develops in babies when their mother used opioids during pregnancy. In 2016, the resolution states that 32.5 per 100 local babies were born with the syndrome compared to 6.7 per 1000 nationally.
According to previous reports, Shenandoah County, where the rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome was higher than statewide averages from 2016-2018, has joined a similar class-action lawsuit that is seeking $60 million in compensatory damages.
J. Chapman Petersen, of the Chap Peterson & Associates law firm representing Warren County, said over the phone that other localities in the lawsuit include West Moorland and Richmond counties. He said the lawsuit will soon be filed in federal court and noted that Warren County is a “great profile” of a locality impacted by the opioid epidemic.
Petersen stated in an email to County Administrator Doug Stanley that it is important to file the lawsuit to hold opioid manufacturers and distributors responsible for their “outright greed and irresponsibility” that resulted in decades of “grave consequences.”
Murray said if the county receives any money from the lawsuit, which may be years down the line, he does not know how it will be used. He added that “it will be used appropriately” but that is ultimately a decision for whoever is on the Board of Supervisors at the time.