The Town of Bel Air is the latest local government in Maryland to join a nationwide movement to sue opioid manufacturers and distributors amid the epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse.
The Board of Town Commissioners introduced and passed a resolution Monday evening authorizing a contingency fee retainer agreement with several law firms that are engaged in opioid litigation against drug manufacturers and distributors.
In reading the two-page resolution into the record at this month’s town meeting, Town Administrator Jesse Bane said the town desires to retain special counsel “to pursue such litigation on a contingent fee basis such that legal fees and expenses will be paid out of monetary recovery, but if there is not monetary recovery, the town will not be responsible for any fees and expenses.”
The Bel Air resolution follows earlier decisions by Harford County government and the City of Havre de Grace to join in national lawsuits, although the two picked different legal teams for such involvement.
The resolution was adopted 4-0 by the Town Board; Commissioner Patrick Richards was absent.
The Harford County Council voted 6-1 Tuesday to give the county government the go-ahead to retain the nationally-known firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP to represent Harford in its lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors.
Bel Air will retain Motley Rice LLC; Fears/Nachawati Law Firm PLLC; Law Office of Ferrer, Poirot & Wansborough; The Kane Law Group; and McNamee Hosea, according to the resolution, which also notes there is “multi-district legislation pending” in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio coordinating some 400 lawsuits nationwide.
Bane said the group of law firms is the same group retained earlier this year by the mayor and City Council of Havre de Grace for the same litigation.
The resolution states that opioid abuse, addictions and overdoses are increasing “and placing heightened demand and strain on local services,” such as increased visits to local hospital emergency rooms and addiction treatment services, as well as an elevated number of calls to the Bel Air Police Department and the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company.
The national lawsuit, the resolution states, is being brought against opioid manufacturers and/or distributors “in the hope of reducing the availability and over-prescribing of opioid drugs which lead to citizens’ addictions, drug dependency and possibility of overdoses.”
Through Sunday, police agencies in Harford County in 2018 have responded to 250 opioid or heroin-related overdose calls, 46 which have been fatal, according to the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, which has been tracking such calls since the beginning of 2015.
Last year, local police agencies responded to 450 overdose calls, with 81 fatalities, compared with 290 total calls and 56 fatalities in 2015, according to the Sheriff’s Office. The greater Bel Air area, ZIP codes 21014 and 21015, are among the areas locally with the highest concentration of overdoses reported.
Town Commissioner Brendan Hopkins said he recently lost a neighbor who died of a heroin overdose and knows another person, a high school classmate, who became dependent on opioids after being prescribed drugs for pain. He said many residents and families have been affected by the ongoing opioid abuse crisis in the town and county.
“I’m 100 percent behind this,” Hopkins said of the resolution. “We need to do everything we can to combat this problem.”
Bane, the town administrator and a former Harford County sheriff who worked more than four decades in law enforcement, said he and the commissioners decided to join the national lawsuit after hearing a presentation from The Kane Law Group at a recent work session.
“It’s my belief that when you have a serious problem, you pull out all stops to attack it,” he said, while also cautioning the lawsuit is but one option and also unlikely to solve the opioid problem itself.
Bane said the hope is the town would be able to recover some of its costs of providing services related to the opioid crisis, such as police being dispatched to administer the anti-opioid naloxone to overdose victims; however, he said the suits also should serve as a “wake-up call” to the pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors to better regulate their products.
“If the lawsuit starts hitting [manufacturers and distributors] in their pocket, then maybe they will pay more attention,” he said.
Bane also said he has seen similar situations in the past with prescription drugs being abused, “a vicious cycle” that is “never ending,” one where opioid based prescription painkillers being abused is just the latest.