2017-12-06 / Front Page

County will join Opioid lawsuit

BY BIL WILCOX
COURIER-TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Person Board of County Commissioners has authorized County Attorney Ron Aycock to move forward with Person County joining a class action lawsuit brought by a consortium of national law firms against drug manufacturers and distributors for contributing to the Opioid problem at the local level.

If the lawsuit is successful, Person County stands to win millions of dollars in damages.

According to an examination by the State Department of Human Services, Person County is one of the most severely impacted counties by the Opioid problem.

Aycock said Opioid abuse is a problem across the country.

“President Trump recently declared it a nationwide crisis,” he said. “NC Attorney General Josh Stein and 40 other states Attorneys General are exploring the possibility of a joint action lawsuit against manufacturers and distributors of the drugs.”

Aycock said during the Nov. 20 commissioners’ meeting the NC Association of County Commissioners was urging counties to consider taking legal action separate from any taken at the state level to ensure that any monetary relief flows directly to counties. The board decided to follow this recommendation.

“The reason is there are costs that are specific to each county,” he said, “and relying on a state lawsuit might not provide the assistance to the counties.”

Aycock said the county would not be at any risk of losing money. The law firm would take the risk. If it won, it would keep 30 percent of the settlement. If it lost, the law firm would absorb its costs.

He said the potential damages the county could win might exceed $2 million annually, which he based on a similar lawsuit by Buncombe County, comparing its population with that of Person.

The damages would be for costs to the county for social services, including foster care; law enforcement, including increased costs for incarceration; health expenses for children born with addiction, and other associated costs related to Opioid addiction.

Aycock said Opioid abuse had already cost four lives in Person County.

He said the culprits were both the manufacturers and distributors of Opioids, each of which reap billions of dollars in annual profits, and there is currently a nationwide movement to hold these companies responsible for the addiction crisis.

He said there was no law firm in Person County, and very few in the state for that matter, which are large enough and have the resources necessary to take on drug corporations worth over a hundred billion dollars.

But he identified two consortiums of national law firms that were competent and well financed. He recommended the consortium led by Greene, Ketchum, Farrell, Bailey and Tweel, principally located out of Tennessee and West Virginia, but with offices throughout the country.

He said they drill down to the county level and would work through the Daniel Law Firm in Caswell County, as the “gatekeeper” for this area.

In estimating a potential settlement, he pointed to Buncombe County, the first North Carolina county to join the lawsuit through a national consortium of law firms. The county estimated it cost $19 million to provide services to the victims.

“Person County has about 16 percent of the population of Buncombe County,” he said. Doing the math and subtracting out the law firm’s fee, he said the potential recovery was a little over $2 million per year. He said there may not be a statute of limitations to the damages, meaning recovery could stretch back for five or 10 years.

“This is almost mind boggling when you think about what the potential could be,” he said. “And it is not potential money, it is potential damages and loss to the citizens of Person County. All you are doing is recovering what (it) is already costing the population.”

At the same time, he advised these types of lawsuits often drag on for several years, and there was a good chance none of the board members would still be in office when it was finally resolved.

After Aycock’s presentation, Commissioner Jimmy Clayton asked if the drug companies could turn around and countersue the county, instead of the big law firm.

“No,” Aycock said. “If they did, the risk would not be ours. It would be the consortium law firm. They take the risk.” He added that the fact the president had declared Opioid addiction a national crisis, and 40 attorneys general were considering the same legal action almost completely negated the lawsuit being considered frivolous.

With no further discussion, the board voted 5-0 to join the lawsuit.

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