Grand Traverse, Leelanau Counties Eye Opioid Lawsuit
By Beth Milligan | Nov. 27, 2017
Grand Traverse County is joining at least 60 other counties across the U.S. in suing pharmaceutical companies for their role in the country’s opioid crisis – with Leelanau County also considering a similar lawsuit.
A legal team comprised of local, state and national attorneys – including Traverse City-based Smith Johnson, Farmington Hills’ Bernstein Law Firm and New York City’s Weitz and Luxemberg – has offered to represent both Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties in suing pharmaceutical companies who have manufactured or sold prescription opioid drugs. The counties do not have to pay any legal costs unless the lawsuit is successful. In the event of a win in the court, the legal team would keep 30 percent of recovered damages as a fee.
Grand Traverse County commissioners approved entering the lawsuit at their November 15 meeting. Attorney Mark Bernstein of Bernstein Law Firm told commissioners the lawsuit was “similar to the tobacco litigation that played out 20 years ago” in which more than 40 states sued tobacco companies to recover costs for Medicaid and other public health expenses caused by smoking-related diseases. “This is litigation that has deep personal implications for virtually every community we speak with,” Bernstein said of the dozens of counties stepping forward to seek repayment for costs incurred by the opioid epidemic. “It has societal implications, and it clearly has enormous financial implications.”
Paul Pennock of Weitz and Luxemberg detailed a range of costs for which Grand Traverse County could seek recovery from drug manufacturers, including overdose-related autopsies, government-funded addiction treatment programs, prosecutorial and court fees for opioid cases, and drug enforcement costs. He cited as an example the cost for police departments in stocking Narcan – an overdose-reversal drug – at an estimated $700 to $1,000 per dose.
“This epidemic has impacted virtually every area of government and governance,” Pennock said. “The cost of that has been enormous, and obviously the tragedies that have occurred can never be taken back. There has additionally been significant cost to communities across the nation….what has happened with this opioid epidemic is stunning.”
Calling Michigan “one of the worst-hit states in the country,” Pennock said “the evidence has been clear” that drug manufacturers deliberately mislead doctors and patients about the danger and addictiveness of drugs like fentanyl and oxycodone and pushed physicians to routinely over-prescribe medication that should have been reserved exclusively for end-of-life or post-surgical care. “This has been a concentrated effort to sell massive amounts of very dangerous medication that should been restricted...but instead was being sold through the efforts of these companies for many, many months of treatment and leaving people addicted,” Pennock said. “These opioids are very insidious. They say that addiction can happen inside of eight days. It’s very clear that the companies have had tremendous responsibility in pushing these drugs out there.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1,000 people are treated every day in emergency rooms for misusing prescription opioids. Nearly half of all U.S. opioid deaths involve a prescription opioid, with many patients also turning to illegal opioids – such as heroin – as a cheaper and more accessible alternative after initially being prescribed a legal opioid drug. “Reasonable and good doctors were prescribing these with the belief they were safe and not addictive,” said Pennock, “and that’s why we’ve had over 200,000 opioid deaths in the last 17 years.”
Grand Traverse County Deputy Civil Counsel Christopher Forsyth told commissioners he believed it would be “worthwhile for the county to join in the litigation,” calling the lawsuit “an important tool…in law enforcement’s toolbox in dealing with this crisis that we’re facing.” Referencing a number of overdose deaths in Traverse City in recent weeks, Commissioner Sonny Wheelock pointed out that recent county budget discussions included talk on the “overwhelming need for additional drug enforcement for our sheriff’s department.”
“This is an absolute crisis in our community,” Wheelock said. “If this (litigation) process does nothing but bring that to the forefront and allow the public to understand it or at least recognize it, I’m all in favor of anything we can do to bring this out because we…cannot by ourselves cure this problem.”
Pennock told commissioners he expected dozens of counties across Michigan and hundreds across the country will eventually join the litigation. Though not a class-action lawsuit, all the individual county lawsuits – each filed in their own court system and seeking their own individual damages – are expected to eventually be assigned to one federal judge. Pennock estimated the process could take four years from filing to a decision for Grand Traverse County.
Meanwhile, Leelanau County commissioners are also considering filing a similar lawsuit. The board discussed the same proposal that was made to Grand Traverse County commissioners by Smith Johnson, Bernstein Law Firm and Weitz and Luxemberg at their Tuesday meeting. County Administrator Chet Janik says commissioners are “interested in proceeding with” litigation against opioid manufacturers. However, since other law firms have also made overtures to represent Leelanau County in such a case, commissioners directed staff to compile a list of proposals for future consideration of the board.
“We’ll be bringing that to them and discussing it at their December (19) meeting,” Janik says.Comment