The Greenbrier County Commission agreed to participate in a lawsuit to fight against the opioid crisis that has plagued municipalities and counties all across the country.
At the Tuesday night, June 26, meeting, the commissioners heard a presentation by attorney Ed Hill requesting the county join a lawsuit filing resolved to hold those industries accountable for having abused their power.
Hill described the plague of opioids that are awash throughout the country as a “created” epidemic by the manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioids that “generates a population physically and psychologically dependent.” Hill said, “There’s not a county nor even a family that’s not affected by this epidemic.” As an pertinent example, in a six-year period, 780 million pills were distributed in West Virginia. With a population of approximately 1.8 million people, that would mean an average of 433 pills per West Virginian, Hill said.
The manufacturers and distributors have repeatedly been fined hundreds of millions of dollars for failing to report suspicious drug orders, despite a gate-keeping system implemented to hold these industries responsible. There are 800 registered wholesale drug distributors, of which 85 percent market share is owned by the Big Three (McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp.), generating an annual revenue of over $100 billion. With so much money to gain, Hill said, they ignored their responsibility. Accountability “was simply not done.”
Hill phrased the goal of the lawsuit while at trial in this way: “What will it take to put your community and its citizens back into the position it was in before the opioid crisis began – how much will it cost to clean up the mess?” If the lawsuit is won, the funds received are recommended to cover three broad areas: 1) education in the school systems that shows “the pills in their parents’ cupboards are just as dangerous as a heroin needle,” 2) support to law enforcement and jailing, and 3) funding for health care and additional addiction recovery facilities to rehabilitate the community.
Hill’s law firm, Hill Peterson Harper Bee & Dietzler PLLC out of Charleston, WV, is one of a six law firm consortium handling this suit. “If there is no recovery,” Hill said, “then there is no fee.” The cost to the county is a 25-percent contingency fee, with a cap limiting expenses to 10-percent over the fee. At worst, this means the lawsuit would cost the county 35 percent of any funds received in a settlement or payout, and would cost the county nothing up front and nothing if the lawsuit fails. Hill said damages, if awarded, will include punitive damages, meaning damages exceeding simple compensation awarded to punish the defendants.
“This consortium was not cobbled together to fight a single battle,” reads a pamphlet Hill presented to the commission. “Recognizing that the target defendants are some of the richest corporations in the country, we are prepared to go the distance and hold them accountable.”
A total of 10 West Virginia counties are included in the filing, he said. “Those not included will be left in the dust.”
Commissioner Woody Hanna credited Commissioner Lowell Rose with being the driving “nudge” for the commission to look into a lawsuit to attempt to recoup county costs related to this problem, including emergency and police services, jail expenses, costs to courts, not to mention clean-up efforts, educating the public and providing facilities to treat addicts. “It’s the number one drain on the county,” said Rose, amounting to about $700,000 a year.
He stated he had two goals he hoped would result from the lawsuit: 1) to help those who want to recover from addiction, and 2) prosecution. “To go after distributors, the dealers, the people who bring drugs into the county. That’s what I want to get out of this.”
Hill said the suit will join several multi-district litigation cases (MDL) with one judge to preside over all, in a process called a bellweather trial. The first trial date, he said, is set for March of 2019.
Robert Frank, a Lewisburg trial attorney, explained that bellweather trials are most efficient. In a MDL, those cases that are most representative of all others are chosen, so both defendant attorneys and prosecutors can understand how juries will respond. “In this way, both sides understand the case,” he said.
Frank, who affirmed that the attorneys working on the suit are the “right group to help this community,” went on to say, “The drug problem in this town [Lewisburg] is so bad that any lawyer who has a license… is expected to step up, and represent folks because of this crisis.”
Lewisburg is a “great place to live,” he said, but added, “I’m scared for my nine-year-old daughter to go to middle school.”
“No one likes to enter into a lawsuit,” said Commissioner Mike McClung. “Sometimes it’s required, sometimes it’s necessary, and sometimes it’s advisable… We are on the verge of losing a large portion of a generation… I’m not naive enough to think that the action we are proposing is going to be a cure for the problem we have, but with an issue that is as important and as desperate as this one, I feel like we need to do something If this is a tool that can be used to turn some part of this problem around, then I suggest that we use it.”
The commission agreed to authorize the resolution and join the lawsuit once Greenbrier County Prosecuting Attorney Patrick Via has reviewed the agreement.