EASTON — In a unanimous decision, the Talbot County Council decided to join in a multi-district lawsuit against big drug companies in an attempt to hold them accountable for their role in the opioid crisis.
At its March 27 meeting, a quorum of four council members voted “to adopt the recommendation of the Talbot County Office of Law to hire Robbins Geller law firm” to pursue the litigation. Council Member Chuck Callahan was absent.
After attending a workshop on the opioid crisis at the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo) winter conference in December 2017, Council President Jennifer Williams, who is also an attorney, asked County Attorney Anthony Kupersmith and Assistant Attorney Mary O’Donnell, to look into joining the nationwide opioid multi-district litigation (MDL) which is consolidated and pending in Cleveland, Ohio.
“Several very large law firms are handling these types of complaints,” Williams said. “These are very big firms, and they’re all operating on ... a contingency fee basis, so it costs the (participating) counties nothing. (The firms) are putting all the costs upfront, so they believe that these distributors are going to basically be found liable.”
“So as an ongoing effort to combat drug abuse, we’re going to join in,” Williams said. “The biggest thing we’re looking for is an injunction against these distributors to force them to do what they’re supposed to be doing.”
After meeting with several firms’ representatives in recent weeks, the Office of Law recommended two firms whose representatives gave presentations to the council, one on March 13 and the other on March 20.
Kupersmith said he and O’Donnell conducted “due diligence” in researching law firms. “We looked for experience, a track record of successful outcomes in these larger litigation cases, a firm that has the resources to fight this fight against a group that has very deep pockets and that has representation from their firm on the settlement committee and the executive committee of the MDL.”
Kupersmith cited other reasons for recommending Robbins, Geller, Rudman & Dowd, LLP. The firm “has 10 offices across the country and have had a number of successful outcomes in prior litigation with multibillion-dollar recoveries,” he said. The firm also was involved in the Volkswagen consumer class-action and in the Enron securities case.
“They have a lot of helpful resources, including legal professionals, forensic accountants, investigators and representatives on the MDL executive committee and the settlement committee which is very important,” Kupersmith said.
“Several other Maryland counties also have decided to work with Robbins Geller, so we’re very excited about the opportunity to do that (as well),” Kupersmith said.
In a news release posted on the law firm’s website, attorney Paul Geller, a principal in the firm, said, “The opioid epidemic is our nation’s greatest public health crisis. Taking on the manufacturers and distributors who are largely responsible for it, and trying to find a solution to abate the devastation on behalf of the (Broward) County, (Florida) in which I live and in which my children go to school, will be a privilege.”
“Robbins Geller also represents several other cities and counties in Florida, Arizona, Michigan and Maryland in the sprawling litigation,” the news release stated.
“I believe that (Robbins Geller) have what we need to be successful,” Vice President Corey Pack said. “This problem is not going to go away. It’s not all about dollars and cents, but it’s about holding those companies accountable for the fraud they’ve perpetrated on the American people.”
“I’m very supportive of going forward,” Price said. “Sometimes people in the community say that we’re becoming a little too litigious in this country, but this one’s different. It was definitely enlightening to hear from these (law firms). They were all impressive, but I’m also extremely impressed with Robbins Geller.”
Williams “laid the groundwork” for the county’s participation in the lawsuit by recounting what she learned at the MACo workshop.
Williams said a limited number of specific drug companies are authorized to distribute opioids.
“You can basically count them on one hand and they’re all multibillion-dollar companies,” Williams said. “They also have a duty ... to notify the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of any suspicious orders or any major changes in orders.”
“What we now know is that they have never really informed the DEA despite the duty that they must do so,” Williams said.
“(In the workshop), we learned that there’s a county in West Virginia with a population of about 25,000. Last year, over 11 million oxycodone pills were distributed in that county,” Williams said.
“(The drug companies) testified that the opioids are not addictive,” Williams said. “They have convinced doctors that pain is now a new vital sign, and they have convinced doctors and educated them that when a patient complains of pain, (they) should treat it.”
“To say that these medications that they were manufacturing and distributing was not addictive — that it was safe … when it was overly prescribed — is a travesty,” Pack said.
“We can go out and talk prevention all you want to, but this is different,” Council Member Laura Price said. “It’s not always a choice (to) just say no.”
Williams said the county has already been “doing a lot” to help the community.
“Sheriff Joe Gamble and Project Purple have educated our entire community. Our health department is active, our emergency services personnel are active. We’ve held Narcan training throughout the county,” Williams said. “This is one more step that were trying to take.”
“There are possible money damages that we might recover, ... and if we get them, they would reimburse the county for what we’ve had to spend on Narcan and Narcan training, additional (corrections and law enforcement personnel), the health department, social services, our schools — across the board, we’re spending money to try to help people, and we’re hoping we can get a little of that back,” Williams said.
“I’m very glad to see the county going down this path,” Williams said, following the vote. “It can only help.”