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The La Crosse County Board will decide next month whether to join as many as 59 Wisconsin counties that have filed or plan to file a lawsuit against drugmakers, distributors and several doctors that holds them responsible for the nation’s opioid epidemic.

Meanwhile, the counties that are suing got their first day in federal court Tuesday.

While two-thirds of Wisconsin’s 72 counties filed federal lawsuits in the last few months of 2017 — all using a legal team of three firms recommended by the Wisconsin Counties Association — La Crosse County has been digging deeper into the details. La Crosse isn’t alone in not jumping into the WCA-endorsed lawsuit, with several of the biggest counties, including Milwaukee and Dane, exploring alternative legal options.

The WCA’s endorsed legal team is offering what seems to be a can’t-miss deal. Counties face no up-front costs for filing the lawsuit, and they will pay nothing if the lawsuit is unsuccessful. If the verdict goes in favor of the counties, the legal team’s costs would be taken off the top of the settlement, and then the attorneys would get 25 percent of what remains.

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La Crosse County Corporation Counsel Megan DeVore

DeVore

La Crosse County had its first discussions last month about joining in the opioid litigation, and Megan DeVore, the county’s corporation counsel, is trying to get more details to help county board members make a decision. Of major interest is how much assistance the legal team would provide the county in complying with information requests from the defense team.

At Wednesday morning’s meeting of the county board’s Executive Committee, DeVore said it was still unclear whether county staff members would be involved in “data mining” related to the lawsuit or whether the legal team representing the county would hire a firm specializing in litigation support to help in the discovery process.

County Administrator Steve O’Malley said a lot of the counties that jumped in for the opioid litigation might not have gone through the intense discovery involved in a major lawsuit. La Crosse County had that experience when it was the lead plaintiff in a case against a guardrail manufacturer, and O’Malley said it was a big burden on staff. The burden in this case would be exponentially worse.

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Steve O'Malley mug

O’Malley

“My speculation is that most counties (filing suit) haven’t had the kind of discussion that we’ve had,” O’Malley said. “They adopted their resolutions with very little interaction with their corporation counsels.”

“There’s already been a lot of staff time committed to this, and we haven’t even made a decision,” Board Chair Tara Johnson said. “That’s good. That’s how it should be. I think it’s important for people to know there’s already been a considerable investment of time and expertise.”

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La Crosse County Board Chair Tara Johnson

Johnson

The Wisconsin counties that have filed lawsuits got their first day in court Tuesday, with a pretrial conference in Cleveland that consolidates action on more than 180 suits related to the opioid epidemic, which the presiding judge, Dan Polster, called “100 percent man-made.” DeVore emphasized that while the lawsuits have been consolidated, it is not a class action suit.

Polster urged participants on all sides of the lawsuits to work toward a common goal of reducing overdose deaths. He said the issue has come to courts because “other branches of government have punted” it.

In addition to the Wisconsin counties, Polster is presiding over lawsuits from other municipalities and counties from states including California, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.

Polster said the goal must be reining in the amount of painkillers available.

“What we’ve got to do is dramatically reduce the number of pills that are out there, and make sure that the pills that are out there are being used properly,” Polster said during a hearing in his Cleveland courtroom. “Because we all know that a whole lot of them have gone walking, with devastating results.”

The judge said he believes everyone from drugmakers to doctors to individuals bear some responsibility for the crisis and haven’t done enough to stop it.

The government tallied 63,600 overdose drug deaths in 2016, another record. Most of the deaths involved prescription opioids such as OxyContin or Vicodin or related illicit drugs such as heroin and fentanyl.

The epidemic is the most widespread and deadly drug crisis in the nation’s history, and for now shows little sign of abating.

Hundreds of lawsuits filed by municipal and county governments could end up as part of the consolidated federal case overseen by Polster, but others are not likely to.

Some government bodies, including Ohio and at least nine other states, are suing the industry in state courts. Additionally, most states — including Wisconsin — have joined a multistate investigation of the industry that could end up sparking a settlement or yet more litigation against the industry.

Targets of the lawsuits include drugmakers such as Allergan, Johnson & Johnson, and Purdue Pharma, and the three large drug distribution companies, Amerisource Bergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson. Drug distributors and manufacturers named in these and other lawsuits have said they don’t believe litigation is the answer but have pledged to help solve the crisis.

Polster likened the epidemic to the 1918 flu which killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, while pointing out a key difference.

“This is 100 percent man-made,” Polster said. “I’m pretty ashamed that this has occurred while I’ve been around.”

Polster urged the lawyers for both sides to work together to reach a speedy resolution that goes beyond compensation for damages and addresses the issues surrounding prescription opioids. “We don’t need briefs, and we don’t need trials,” Polster said. “None of those are going to solve what we’ve got.”

While Polster is pushing for quick action, DeVore said La Crosse County still has time to get involved in the litigation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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La Crosse Tribune entertainment and county government reporter

Randy Erickson covers arts and entertainment and county government for the La Crosse Tribune. Contact him at 608-791-8219 or randy.erickson@lee.net.

(9) comments

Cassandra

republican "leaders" will want this shut down so their contributors from Big Pharma can continue to make billions while creating the biggest public health crisis since tobacco.

El Duderino

LaCrosseTaxPayer’s angry, cruel, bizarre, and unrealistic rant isn’t representative of any party or Trump supporters. That’s low lying fruit to suggest as much.

madmen60

I think he sounds remarkably like a Trump supporter.

Rick Czeczok

So how do you go about sewing the cartels. I really want to here that answer. They handle things differently, so watch your back if you do sew them. For the rest of your life.

Cassandra

Sew?
Wow. Another Russian bot with bad grammar skills.

Rick Czeczok

Sorry my bad. But really that's what you got out of my comment. Sir use your real name if you insult and belittle people. Otherwise it makes you look like your hiding like a coward.
Fake name, fake gender, not much to listen to there.

Cassandra

You're a Russian bot. Prove otherwise.

LaCrosseTaxPayer

We need to file lawsuits against the courts and judges that keep letting the dealers and junkies out with not much more than a slap on the wrist!
People wonder why health care is so expensive, this is one or the biggest reason, did the drug company’s shove the pills down the junkies’ throat or make the fools crush the pills up so they can snort or shoot it, I don’t think so!
When are people going to be held accountable for their own actions?
Capital punishment for the dealers!
One shot for the junkies to clean themselves up, 2nd offence = Capital punishment!
The tax payers cannot afford to keep paying for the dead beat addicts that cost us billions of dollars each year supporting their habit!!
Drug test any one on or wanting any kind of welfare and NO WELFARE for life for anyone testing dirty, that includes health care!!!!!
If you can afford the drugs you can afford to take care of yourself and your family!!!
It was and is your decision to abuse these meds, so it’s time to but your big boy panties on and deal with YOUR decisions!!!

madmen60

What a well reasoned, concise and defensible comment. Let me guess, you're a Trump supporter.

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