La Crosse County likely will join the growing number of counties and municipalities suing drugmakers, distributors and doctors over the nation’s opioid drug crisis.
The La Crosse County Board’s Executive Committee voted unanimously Thursday morning to join more than 60 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties in a suit to hold the defendants responsible for their part in a drug abuse epidemic that is killing an estimated 150 Americans daily. The full county board is expected to vote on the matter at its meeting Feb. 15.
County officials first began discussing joining other Wisconsin counties suing drugmakers in December. They were hesitant to join for fear that demands for documentation of actual damages from the defendants would mean too much extra work for county staff members, diverting them from actually dealing with the widespread effects of the opioid crisis.
At Thursday’s meeting, county corporation counsel Megan DeVore said she had spoken with representatives of the legal team recommended by the Wisconsin Counties Association as well as a Twin Cities legal firm and was assured that the discovery process wouldn’t be a problem.
“Generally, I feel at this time comfortable recommending going ahead with the litigation,” DeVore said. “The burden of discovery is not going to be as great as we initially thought it was going to be. … Both firms made us comfortable that there would be adequate support to get through that discovery process.”
Documenting the financial damages experienced by the county related to opioid abuse might not even be necessary, DeVore said, because the Ohio judge overseeing a consolidation of at least 180 lawsuits is pushing hard for a negotiated settlement that wouldn’t require that sort of digging on the part of the plaintiffs.
And if La Crosse County did end up being a test case among the Wisconsin counties suing, DeVore added, the law firm would pay assistance with that documentation process.
States, counties and local governments have filed suits against Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals and other companies, accusing them of misleading doctors and consumers about the addictive nature of opioids such as OxyContin. The hundreds of lawsuits allege that drug manufacturers overstated the benefits and downplayed the risks of addiction when treating pain with opioids, and that distributors failed to properly monitor suspicious orders of prescription painkillers.
Last week, initial settlement discussions began behind closed doors in the Cleveland courtroom of U.S. District Judge Dan Polster, who has signaled that he wants to see a settlement that includes several of the federal lawsuits he oversees and others over which he has no jurisdiction. Polster’s goal is to have money go toward treatment and to have doctors prescribe fewer opioids.
Polster will oversee the next session of settlement negotiations March 6.
La Crosse County still has time to become part of the litigation if it approves the hiring of the multi-firm legal team at its meeting next week, according to DeVore. There is no cost to the county to join the lawsuit and no cost if the plaintiffs are unsuccessful. The legal team will recover its costs and take 25 percent of any damages or settlement.
States, counties and local governments have filed suits against Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals and other companies, accusing them of misleading doctors and consumers about the addictive nature of opioids such as OxyContin.