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Baltimore County Council to vote Monday on contract to join federal suit against opioid manufacturers

The Baltimore County Council is expected on Monday to approve the hiring of private attorneys to help the county government sue pharmaceutical companies that make opioid drugs.

Council members are scheduled to vote on a retainer agreement with Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, a firm with offices in 10 cities, and with Baltimore-based Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin & White, to represent the county.

Baltimore County is the latest local government moving to sue drug manufacturers amid the widening opioid addiction crisis. Last week, Baltimore filed a lawsuit in Circuit Court against drug makers and prescribers. Anne Arundel County filed a similar case in its Circuit Court in September. Harford County is considering a lawsuit, and Howard County officials say they will interview law firms for a potential suit.

Representatives of drug firms cited in local lawsuits generally have denied any wrongdoing. They say they work to make sure the pills they make or distribute are used safely.

Baltimore County is looking to join federal litigation rather than file a local lawsuit. Dozens of lawsuits from state and local governments already are pending in federal court. More than 200 were recently consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio. The judge has urged the parties to settle, according to The Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland.

Michael Field, county attorney for Baltimore County, said that Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd is already involved in the litigation and is poised to take a lead role in the settlement of the case. That makes the firm a good choice for the county, he said.

“Were working with a firm that’s going to be a little closer to the decision-makers,” Field told council members last week.

Field said his office interviewed five firms before settling on Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd.

The county won’t have to pay money in advance to join the litigation, Field said. The firm will deduct its costs and a 25 percent contingency fee from any money that the court awards to the county.

Baltimore County’s Office of Law rarely hires outside attorneys, but officials say county staff attorneys don’t have the appropriate experience to handle an opioid lawsuit. Council members expressed support for joining the litigation during a hearing on the contract last week.

“We’re hearing over and over again how this opioid epidemic is just destroying families and people’s lives,” said Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat.

Baltimore County suffered 336 overdose deaths in 2016, second only to the 694 deaths in Baltimore. Statewide, 89 percent of overdose deaths were related to opioids, including heroin, fentanyl and prescription drugs.

The litigation — proposed by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz — comes as council members have grown increasingly concerned about the effects of opioid and heroin addiction on the community.

The council passed a resolution in November ordering the county Department of Health and Human Services to perform a six-month review of all of the county’s opioid prevention, education and treatment programs. The council also directed the county to investigate copying Anne Arundel County’s “safe stations” program, which allows drug users to get connected to treatment at any police or fire station.

The Baltimore County Council meets at 6 p.m. Monday in the Historic Courthouse at 400 Washington Ave. in Towson.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Kate Magill contributed to this article.

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