The City of Havre de Grace will retain the services of national law firms to file a lawsuit against opioid distributors and manufacturers, following the unanimous approval of a resolution by the City Council Monday evening.
“Without a doubt, [the] opioid addiction epidemic is reaching crisis proportions,” said Council President David Glenn, who made the motion to adopt Resolution 2018-21.
Glenn said the epidemic is putting strain on police, fire and EMS personnel, hospital emergency rooms, addiction treatment providers, “as well as families.”
The law firms will represent the city on a “contingent fee basis,” meaning legal expenses and fees are paid out of any damages recovered, and there is no cost to the city if no money is recovered, according to the resolution.
“Given the no cost, I feel this is a win-win situation, and now is the time to act and attack it head on,” Glenn said.
The council agreed to retain the national firms Fears Nachawati Law Firm and Ferrer, Poirot & Wansbrough, with support from the Baltimore firm of McNamee Hosea and, The Kane Law Group in Washington, D.C.
Attorney Jonathan Novak, of McNamee Hosea, and John Kane Jr., of The Kane Law Group, spoke with Havre de Grace leaders during the public comment portion of Monday’s council meeting.
Havre de Grace joins hundreds of other local government entities throughout the nation that have filed suit in order to recover damages associated with their communities’ costs of responding to deadly opioid addiction.
The crisis is blamed, in large part, on prescription drug manufacturers and distributors who allegedly conducted an aggressive marketing campaign, leading to over-prescription of the drugs to patients, and misleading the public and government officials about their addictive properties.
“What we are ... proving is that these companies deliberately caused this problem, made money hand-over-fist and have done nothing to correct the problem,” Novak told the mayor and council.
Novak is a former DEA prosecutor who has pursued cases against opioid firms.
His and Kane’s firms are working with national firms Motley Rice LLC, the Fears Nachawati Law Firm and Ferrer, Poirot & Wansbrough on “multi-district litigation,” involving about 400 lawsuits that are being consolidated in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Ohio.
“This is not a class-action lawsuit,” Novak said, explaining the difference between that and multi-district litigation. “These are individual cases that are filed on behalf of counties, cities, states, all public entities that we represent.”
Novak and Kane’s firms represent about 15 counties and municipalities in Maryland, such as Anne Arundel County, Charles County, Dorchester County, Queen Anne’s County and the City of Cambridge.
The federal court in Ohio would hold “a few bellwether trials” to determine if the defendants did what they are accused of and if they should be held liable, and then the remaining cases would go back to the districts where they were filed, according to Novak.
Kane urged city leaders, in response to a question from Councilman James Ringsaker about the implications if the city goes with another firm, that they find someone with the experience in multi-district litigation against pharmaceutical companies.
“We do this every day,” Kane said.
Novak said any client has the right to change counsel.
“If you choose to go with us, I don’t think that is what you will be looking at farther down the line,” he said.
The legal costs would be covered at up to 25 percent of the amount recovered, although that rate can change depending on the size of the recovery, according to Novak.
“The city is looking at 75 percent of the recovery, or more,” he said.
The firms would bring in forensic accountants to review the financial impact on city services, potentially going back to 1996, when the prescription painkiller OxyContin went on the market, Novak said.
“They misrepresented, they lied about the nature of these drugs when they knew full-well what was going to happen, so we’re looking to go back that far,” Novak said of the pharmaceutical firms.
The maker of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, has posted a warning on its web page about the risks of using the drug, which include “addiction, abuse and misuse.”
The Harford County Council voted in March to allow the county government to retain the services of another national firm, Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP, to represent Harford County in the same litigation in Ohio.
The Kane group and McNamee had been among the finalists to represent Harford County, according to Kane; however, the county attorney’s office selected Robins Geller Rudman & Dowd for the County Council’s approval.
City Attorney April Ishak said Monday that she learned the county was interviewing firms for opioid litigation, and she asked the City Council’s administrative committee about interviewing firms for the same purpose. The committee gave her the go-ahead.
The group ultimately retained by the city appealed to Ishak because of their focus on damages for their clients, the promise of individual attention, their experience with multi-district litigation, plus the fee is reduced proportionally if settlements or judgments increase, she said.
“It’s very complicated litigation, and we really need people who really understand the process in order to have the most effective legal representation,” Ishak said.
Mayor William T. Martin said he receives weekly updates from Police Chief Teresa Walter about the impact of opioids on Havre de Grace and how it affects police resources and manpower.
The crisis also affects the Susquehanna Hose Company, the city’s volunteer fire company, and the Havre de Grace Ambulance Corps, local volunteer EMS provider, Martin said.
“I’m not a doctor but I think everyone on this council and I think everyone in the audience ... can agree that opioid medications are being dispensed way too liberally in this country,” the mayor said.
Jim Miller, a former city councilman, disagreed with filing a lawsuit. He said the city should send a letter of support to Maryland Attorney Brian Frosh expressing support for his pursuit of legal action against manufacturers and distributors of opioids, rather than hire attorneys he characterized as “ambulance chasers.”
“If you’re going to do this, let’s take the money out of the City Council salary budget and put that over to pay for this frivolous lawsuit,” Miller said.
The Healthcare Distribution Alliance, the national trade association for prescription drug distributors, issued a statement Wednesday in response to the city’s action.
“The misuse and abuse of prescription opioids is a complex public health challenge that requires a collaborative and systemic response that engages all stakeholders,” John Parker, senior vice president, said in the statement issued through alliance spokesperson Jill Courtney.
Distributors focus on logistics, moving medications from the manufacturers to health care providers and pharmacies, plus every order is reported to the DEA, according to an email from Courtney.
“Given our role, the idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated,” Parker continued. “Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation.”
The alliance issued a similar statement in January after Harford County Executive Barry Glassman announced in his annual State of the County Address that his administration would seek legal action against opioid manufacturers and distributors.
This story is updated with a statement from the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, the national trade association for prescription drug distributors.