Pittsburgh's hired guns move in on Philadelphia's turf as opioid lawyers jostle for power

By John O'Brien | Aug 29, 2018

Delaware County Court of Common Pleas  

MEDIA – Despite the in-fighting that has broken out in Pennsylvania among attorneys vying to lead the effort to hold pharmaceutical companies liable for the nation’s opioid epidemic (and score a nice payday), more lawyers are needed.

That’s the opinion of Motley Rice, one of the country’s most influential personal injury law firms. On Aug. 1, the firm told a Delaware County judge that it should join colleagues already chosen to lucrative co-lead counsel spots to steer the direction of dozens of lawsuits filed on behalf of cities, counties and health plans.

The bickering in Pennsylvania among plaintiffs lawyers working on contingency fees has escalated this summer with challenges to Judge Charles Burr’s June order.

A private lawyer representing Lehigh County says his case was “highjacked” by the order consolidating the cases in Delaware County and appointing lead counsel, then later told Legal Newsline he considers multidistrict litigation proceedings – which the Pennsylvania litigation closely resembles – “cesspools.”

The chosen few firms who are repeatedly chosen to lead those MDLs “love to sell their clients down the river for pennies on the dollar,” says Donald Haviland, Lehigh County’s lawyer.

Motley Rice is certainly an experienced player in MDL litigation. Co-founder Joe Rice is on the leadership team for the MDL in Cleveland that houses all federal court opioid cases.

The firm snagged Allegheny and Erie counties as clients, as well as the City of Pittsburgh.

“Motley Rice has developed a deep expertise with regard to the opioid litigation, having collected and reviewed roughly 22 million pages of documents, conducted depositions and interviewed hundreds of prescribers, addiction specialists and families impacted by opioids,” the motion says.

“We have identified and interviewed former employees of the opioid manufacturers and their third-party partners, helping us gain valuable insight into defendants’ marketing and distribution practices.”

Much of the motion is dedicated to chronicling Motley Rice’s biggest causes, like the tobacco litigation of the 1990s and its work on behalf of asbestos plaintiffs.

But not everyone is convinced. The City of Philadelphia says the motion is improper, as one of the private firms it hired (Berger & Montague) resists being joined as co-lead counsel.

“(T)he co-lead counsel group already includes a lead firm from the federal MDL proceeding, thus another such firm is unnecessary,” lawyers for Philadelphia wrote.

“(T)he inclusion of Motley (which does not have a Pennsylvania office) would dilute the impact that Pennsylvania-based firms will have on the leadership team.”

Simmons Hanly Conroy is the co-lead counsel also serving on the federal MDL. The third firm is Pogust Braslow & Millrood of Conshohocken.

Meanwhile, Haviland is seeking a stay on proceedings while his appeal is sorted out by the Commonwealth Court.

“Lehigh County wishes to proceed with its own hired attorneys in the venue of its choosing,” Haviland wrote Aug. 10.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of cases around the country accuse companies that manufactured prescription opioids of downplaying the risk of addiction, causing the country’s current drug crisis. Plaintiffs are seeking to recoup costs associated with the problem.

Major defendants are manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, Cephalon, Teva, Actavis, Endo Pharmaceuticals and Insys Therapeutics. Distributors are also being accused of a role, and recently a group of national pharmacies asked to be dismissed from the MDL.

Lawyers opposing the leadership structure in Pennsylvania claim that co-lead counsel don’t represent enough of the state – only 21% of the state.

Motley Rice says it represents more than two million residents and that the opioid epidemic “has hit especially hard in these communities.”

But, as Philadelphia’s lawyers put it: “There is no compelling or even legitimate reason to interrupt the ongoing work and continuity of co-lead counsel. Nothing in the Motley Rice motion provides a reason to do so.”

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Organizations in this Story

Actavis Berger & Montague PC Cephalon City of Philadelphia City of Pittsburgh Endo International Haviland Hughes Johnson & Johnson Motley Rice Purdue Pharma Simmons Hanly Conroy Teva Pharmaceuticals

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