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'We are in an absolute crisis': Carroll County commissioners move to sue opioid manufacturers, distributors

'We are in an absolute crisis': Carroll County commissioners move to sue opioid manufacturers, distributors
The law firm Andrews & Thornton presents to the Carroll County Board of Commissioners on the steps and process of initiating litigation against opioid manufacturers and distributors in state court. The commissioners voted to retain the firm and begin that process. (Cody Boteler / Carroll County Times)

The Carroll County Board of Commissioners on Thursday voted unanimously to retain a California-based law firm to initiate state-level litigation against opioid manufacturers and distributors.

Through April 1, there were 98 reported overdoses in Carroll County, including 37 from heroin, seven from fentanyl and 17 from other prescription medication, according to data from the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office. Ten resulted in fatalities — one from heroin, four from fentanyl and five from other or unknown substances.

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“We are in an absolute crisis. To me, this is the national emergency that we have to deal with,” said Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5.

County Attorney Timothy Burke, who’s been directed to retain the law firm Andrews & Thornton, said he would be the firm’s “man in Carroll County” working to collect data and determining who to bring as witnesses.

“With a civil litigation you’re looking for a monetary settlement,” Burke said. “To compensate the county for all those expenses … that are associated with the opioid crisis.”

In suing manufacturers and distributors, Carroll County — and other jurisdictions across the country that have taken similar action — are looking to collect damages for costs incurred associated with the opioid crisis, including but not limited to increased law enforcement and emergency response costs, increased hospital costs, court costs and lost tax revenue.

The county is not paying Andrews & Thornton a retention fee, but there is a 20 percent contingency agreement. If there is a settlement or an award in the case, Carroll County will retain 80 percent of the damages, moved into its general fund, and the law firm will collect 20 percent as payment.

Dick Ackerman, a retired state senator from California and of counsel for Andrews & Thornton, said he expects to file litigation this month in Maryland. However, he said he was not sure how long the lawsuit would take.

“Whatever I give you is going to be a total guess,” Ackerman told the commissioners, before adding that it would likely be, at least, “a couple years.”

The defendants in the lawsuit, Ackerman said, would be opioid manufacturers like Purdue Pharma, Janssen (a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson), Teva/Cephalon and Endo Health Solutions, and opioid distributors, including McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health.

Ackerman said Carroll County is the first jurisdiction in Maryland to retain Andrews & Thornton, but that other jurisdictions, including Laurel, Salisbury and Allegany County are doing their “due diligence and getting information” and considering similar lawsuits. Annapolis in late March brought a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors, seeking $400 million. Baltimore City brought a suit early last year and Cecil County has filed a suit in federal, rather than state, court.

There were 12 opioid-related deaths in Carroll County in 2007. By 2017, that number had climbed to 51, according to data from the Maryland Department of Health.

That year, the opioid epidemic became personal for Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District-4 who is serving his first term.

His daughter, Tawni Nicole Bouchat, 26, died on Feb. 16, 2017, Bouchat said. She had become addicted to prescription opioids, turned to heroin and was killed by a dose of fentanyl, he said.

“People are suffering. I will eternally suffer, I’ll suffer through the rest of my life having lost my daughter. I worry about all the other people out there who are going to be suffering who don’t even know it yet,” Bouchat said.

Bouchat said he is “very, very happy” that the county is taking steps to bring a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies and distributors.

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“I hope we can save other lives,” he said.

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