2017-12-14 / Local News

County plans to join in federal lawsuit against drug companies

Attorneys' take would be 30%
By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff


MARK BERNSTEIN of the downstate Sam Bernstein Law Firm addresses the County Board during its Tuesday meeting flanked by, to his right, Paul F. Novak of the national Weitz & Luxenberg law firm and Timothy Smith of the Traverse City law firm of Smith & Johnson. The firms are teaming up to represent more than 100 municipalities suing drug manufacturers and distributors over the opioid crisis. MARK BERNSTEIN of the downstate Sam Bernstein Law Firm addresses the County Board during its Tuesday meeting flanked by, to his right, Paul F. Novak of the national Weitz & Luxenberg law firm and Timothy Smith of the Traverse City law firm of Smith & Johnson. The firms are teaming up to represent more than 100 municipalities suing drug manufacturers and distributors over the opioid crisis. Leelanau County, encouraged by a prominent downstate lawyer who was considering a run for governor, next week will likely join more than 100 other government entities in the U.S. that have already filed suit against the manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioid drugs.

At its executive meeting Tuesday morning, the board heard from attorneys representing three law firms that have teamed up with others across the country to file a federal lawsuit seeking compensation for expenses the opioid crisis has imposed on state and local governments.

Included was attorney Mark Bernstein, whose face regularly appears on television commercials. The consortium of attorneys seeking to represent the county would be reimbursed 30 percent of a legal award plus expenses. The remaining amount would go to their client units of government based on how much in damages they claim.

The attorneys said the chances of prevailing in a federal lawsuit resulting in a multi-billion-dollar settlement with major corporate manufacturers and distributors of opioid drugs are excellent. The attorneys are asserting that manufacturers of prescription painkillers engaged in deceptive marketing practices, and that wholesale distributors of the drugs were irresponsible.

In some cases, patients who were improperly prescribed opioid painkillers became addicted to them. When prescriptions ran out, many obtained the drugs illegally, or started using heroin and other illegal substances.

The attorneys said that local municipal governments throughout the U.S. have spent public funds to respond to the crisis. In some cases, local governments have been required to contribute more taxpayer dollars to substance abuse treatment programs they may help administer. The additional costs of policing and incarcerating drug addicts could also be reimbursed if the lawsuit is successful.

The county could also be reimbursed for the cost of purchasing anti-overdose drugs now being carried in sheriff’s department patrol cars and provided to every emergency responder.

Earlier this year, the county received proposals from several law firms and groups of law firms interested in representing Leelanau County in the potential “multi-district lawsuit” against opioid manufacturers and distributors. Several groups were invited to make presentations to the County Board, but only one did.

Attorney Timothy Smith, a principal of the Traverse City-based law firm of Smith & Johnson, said the county should hire his firm and its associates not only because they were the only ones to show up and make a presentation to the county, but also because they are uniquely qualified.

Smith said that his firm will continue to interact directly with the county, but that much of the legal “heavy lifting” will be done by the national law firm of Weitz & Luxenberg, based in New York. Weitz & Luxenberg was represented at Tuesday’s meeting by Detroitbased attorney Paul Novak.

Well-known Michigan attorney Bernstein represented his family’s Sam Bernstein Law Firm, whose advertisements seek out personal injury clients. He was mentioned as a leading Democratic candidate for governor before withdrawing his name in July.

Bernstein stressed that the lawsuit will not target individual physicians or local pharmacies, but will mostly go after the six major corporate manufacturers of opioid drugs such as OxyContin, Percodan, Norco and other highly addictive painkillers. Three other companies account for about 90-percent of the country’s national distribution of the drugs, he explained.

Smith said it’s not likely any of the companies will be put out of business if they decide to settle the lawsuit by paying out a substantial award to units of government. He said it’s clear the companies have considered such issues as part of the cost of doing business. They’ve been sued before on other issues, and are still in business, he said.

In addition, no one is suggesting the drugs should not be manufactured and distributed.

The County Board voted 7-0 at this week’s meeting to recommend the county join the lawsuit, using the three law firms to represent them. The board will make a final decision at its regular monthly meeting next week.

Smith explained that the only expense the county might incur is the cost of about 25-30 county employee man-hours to help attorneys determine how much money the county should be paid.

County administrator Chet Janik said the county’s auditing firm, Rehman, has already agreed to help review budget documents to determine amounts the county might be in line to receive.

Smith said he will continue working with the county with a target of gathering the damage data by July of next year. Attorneys speculated that legal proceedings may not be concluded for two to five years.

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