A lawsuit filed on behalf of Carroll County against an array of pharmaceutical companies and their owners alleging the companies are responsible for damages resulting from the opioid addiction crisis that has killed hundreds in Carroll has been withdrawn. But that doesn’t mean the case is over.
The lawsuit, initially filed in July 25 in Carroll County Circuit Court, had been moved to federal court at the request of the defendants — who include drug makers including Teva Pharmaceuticals, Janssen Pharmaceuticals and Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of the opioid medication known as OxyContin — according to attorney Jeff Reeves, of the California-based firm Theodora Oringher. His firm is working with Baltimore-based Shapiro Sher Guinot & Sandler to represent Carroll County in the case.
“The defendants have something in their toolkit called a ‘snap removal,’ where they file something saying this case, belongs in federal court, there’s really federal court jurisdiction here,” Reeves said. “We very much want the case in state court, that’s why we filed it in state court. The defendants very much want the case in federal court.”
And so Reeves and his colleagues have withdrawn their complaint, and plan to refile the suit in Carroll County Circuit Court in the coming weeks.
“We are filing the complaint, so it’s coming back to Carroll County, for sure. Now whether it stays there — it doesn’t mean they won’t try to remove it again,” Reeves said. "This is sort of little skirmish has been playing itself out across the country for other law firms like ours who are trying to keep the cases in state court."
Cases like the one decided Aug. 26 in Oklahoma, where a judge ruled that Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries must pay that state $572 million for their role in fueling the opioid addiction problem there, a ruling that bolstered the hopes of Carroll County officials.
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“It is a good sign. It’s a good sign for all the communities across this nation,” Carroll County Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, said of the Oklahoma ruling. “Pharmaceutical industries need to be held accountable for drug dealing.”
Reeves and his colleagues have a better chance of holding those companies to account for Carroll County if they can keep the case in Carroll County, he said, because the case going to federal court means it will become one many cases before a single judge.
“If they go to federal court, it can only go to one place, That’s the multi-district litigation, which we call the MDL, pending in front of Judge Polster in Cleveland, Ohio," Reeves said. "The reason they want it to go there is because it will exist in some sort of purgatory for a very long time and probably never get to trial. There are 2,300, roughly, complaints in the MDL right now.”
The federal court system cannot possible try all 2,300 cases, Reeves said, so instead a few “bellwether” cases are selected as exemplars of all the cases before the court. The first bellwether case is scheduled to come to trial in Cleveland on Oct. 21.
“But we don’t want any part of that. That’s a big bureaucratic morass,” Reeves said. “We want judge who has one plaintiff, us, not 2,300 plaintiffs. We want to judge who knows what Carroll County is, who understands what the community is. And we want jurors who understand that too.”
So Reeves and his colleagues are reworking their case, making sure they are suing under only Maryland statutes and not federal, making clear their argument that this case is about Carroll County and should stay there. Then they will file suit again.
“I would say it’s imminent,” Reeves said. “Whether it’s the next week or two weeks, I don’t know. But it’s not gonna be a long time.”