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Harford County to retain national firm in opioid lawsuit

County Executive Barry Glassman signs an emergency declaration two years ago as County Attorney Melissa Lambert looks on. The County Council Tuesday night approved Lambert's request on behalf of Glassman to retain a national law firm in a legal fight over the opioid crisis.
County Executive Barry Glassman signs an emergency declaration two years ago as County Attorney Melissa Lambert looks on. The County Council Tuesday night approved Lambert's request on behalf of Glassman to retain a national law firm in a legal fight over the opioid crisis. (MATT BUTTON/THE AEGIS FILE 2016)

Harford County will retain the national law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP in its planned lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors, after the Harford County Council approved the county government’s request Tuesday evening.

“We have to hold the manufacturers and distributors accountable for their lack of watchdog [role],” County Attorney Melissa Lambert told council members as she presented the administration’s request to retain outside counsel.

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County Executive Barry Glassman announced during his annual State of the County Address in January his intent to sue the opioid industry for its alleged contributions to doctors over-prescribing painkillers to patients who became addicted to them and then moved on to heroin.

Addiction to heroin and other opioids has become a deadly epidemic in Harford County, the state and the nation in recent years.

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“The opioid epidemic in the U.S. has become the worst drug crisis in U.S. history,” Lambert said.

Counties, municipalities and even Native American tribes throughout the U.S. have filed lawsuits against the pharmaceutical industry, and Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd has been retained by many of those jurisdictions.

“This is extremely complex mass tort litigation,” Lambert said, noting experienced litigators with firms such as Robbins Geller are needed for such cases.

U.S. District Judge Dan A. Polster, of the Northern District of Ohio, is overseeing more than 400 suits filed in federal court against opioid manufacturers and distributors, as well as pharmacies. Polster has ordered attorneys for the plaintiffs and defendants to reach a settlement by the end of 2018, rather than pursue litigation, The New York Times reported earlier this month.

Lambert mentioned Polster’s push toward mediation and a settlement during Tuesday’s council meeting.

“He understands the need to not have ... unnecessary delay when there are people dying every day,” Lambert said.

There have been 91 suspected overdoses in Harford, 22 of them fatal, so far this year, according to Lambert.

The Harford County Sheriff’s Office, which keeps a publicly displayed tally of suspected opioid overdoses, reported 450 overdoses, including 81 fatalities, in 2017.

She cited data that indicates prescription drug manufacturers misrepresented the addictive nature of opioids, and said there has been “a complete lack of oversight and reporting by distributors,” leading to a flood of the drugs into communities nationwide.

“What we need to do is help Harford County get some kind of relief,” Lambert said.

She stressed to council members that Robbins Geller will not charge Harford County if they do not win.

“The only time we will pay any costs or fees is if they are able to win a settlement or judgment on our behalf,” Lambert said.

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She said county government leaders, as well as all of the agencies that have been affected by the local opioid crisis, such as police, the courts, prosecutors, the health department, will meet with Robbins Geller attorneys to determine what financial costs those entities have borne so far, what costs they would bear in the future and the costs of a community education program.

Those costs would factor into what portion of a settlement would go to Harford County, according to Lambert.

Her request for outside counsel gained broad support among council members, who voted 6-1 in favor of it.

“This is a time-sensitive issue,” Council President Richard Slutzky said.

Councilman Mike Perrone, who is also a Republican candidate for county executive, cast the dissenting vote.

He said he wanted to “try to go down the road of anticipating unanticipated consequences.”

He expressed concerns about the potential impact on patients who use opioids to manage chronic pain and do not have access to alternate treatments such as medical marijuana, which is legal in Maryland.

Perrone also warned that pharmaceutical firms that are not part of the lawsuits could become “a little gun shy” and not invest funds in research and development of an opioid that could be used to successfully treat pain without side effects or addictive properties.

He suggested legislative and regulatory solutions at the state level, rather than litigation.

“These are the ground rules that we need to lay in order to ensure that consumers are protected,” Perrone said.

Lambert told council members that the object of litigation is not to get rid of prescription opioids, but rather to ensure responsible distribution.

“The primary goal is that there is responsible prescribing of these medications,” she said.

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