BURLINGTON, N.D. (Legal Newsline) - A North Dakota county recently declined to pursue a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, turning down a request for a meeting from five heavyweight law firms based from Texas to Washington D.C.
Ward County, the third-largest in the state, will follow the advice of the state's attorney general, who has joined suit against pharmaceutical companies and others over claims that they are responsible for the rise in opioid use, and therefore liable for the costs.
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem asked counties and cities not to begin litigation, rather let the state take the lead with its involvement in multi-district litigation ongoing in Ohio federal court. His position is that it will only add to attorney costs that would otherwise go to communities.
While Ward County recently decided to turn down the meeting with the firms, Cass County, the state's second-largest, decided it will file suit. The state's largest county, Burleigh County, is believed to be still considering whether it will do so.
Alan Walter, Ward County Commission Chairman, told Legal Newsline that it decided not to sue, or otherwise get involved, but would prefer the attorney general take the lead.
The decision was taken after it received a letter asking for a meeting from five law firms, which the county identified as Motley Rice, of Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina; Ferrer Poirot Wansbrough and Fears Nachawati, both of Dallas; McNamee Hosea, with offices in Washington D.C.; and Salazar Sullivan Jasionowski, of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
County commissioners voted earlier this month to send a letter back to the law firms stating that it did not want a meeting with them. This followed the request from the attorneys, which was sent the previous month.
Many states are now involved in the action against, among others, Purdue Pharma, maker of Oxycontin, the powerful pain killer marketed and sold from the mid-1990s.
It is alleged that there is a direct link between this push and the surge in opioid overdoses and deaths, more than 40,000 last year. Hundreds of cities and counties in various states are also suing independently.
Walter said the county does have some issues with drugs, but not to the extent that it is in other areas of the country.
On the letter from the lawyers, Walter said, "We were not surprised, (we) get letters from lawyers, national firms, on various issues."
He added that while the county is leaving it to the attorney general at this point, and that there is no sense in pursuing a suit alone, it may do so independently if it is needed.
When contacted, the Attorney General's Office referred any questions about the multistate litigation to the National Association of Attorneys General, and sent previous statements made by Stenehjem.
On announcing in May that North Dakota was joining the multistate litigation, the attorney general said, "Today, I filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma. I believe that credible evidence exists to conclude that Purdue knew the serious risks of long-term opioid use and minimized or ignored evidence that its product could be deadly."
In its complaint, North Dakota alleges that Purdue "misrepresented and trivialized the risk of addiction from prolonged use of opioids, and reassured prescribers that signs of addiction were due to so-called “pseudo-addiction” and would cease once the patient’s pain was controlled."
“Today’s opioid crisis is inextricably linked to Purdue’s pervasive and deceptive marketing campaign. Purdue initiated the expansion of the opioid market that created the opioid crisis,” Stenehjem said.
Cass County has decided to independently sue, arguing that the "state is too narrow in its claim," according to a report in the Grand Forks Herald.
The county has hired the California-based law firm Robbins, Geller, Rudman & Dowd, representatives of which had earlier met with commission members.
Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick has said that if the state's lawsuit reaches a settlement, it isn't clear how that money would benefit the county, according to the report in the Herald.