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City Council authorizes litigation against opioid manufacturers

In a 7-0 vote Tuesday, Feb. 12, the Prescott City Council authorized pursuing a civil lawsuit “against those responsible for the wrongful manufacture and distribution of prescription opiates and damages caused thereby.” (Cindy Barks/Courier)

In a 7-0 vote Tuesday, Feb. 12, the Prescott City Council authorized pursuing a civil lawsuit “against those responsible for the wrongful manufacture and distribution of prescription opiates and damages caused thereby.” (Cindy Barks/Courier)

Making “big pharma” pay for impacts that the opioid epidemic has had on Prescott is the aim of a lawsuit that was endorsed by the Prescott City Council this week.

In a 7-0 vote Tuesday, Feb. 12, the council authorized pursuing a civil lawsuit “against those responsible for the wrongful manufacture and distribution of prescription opiates and damages caused thereby.”

With that vote, the council retained a team of outside attorneys to work with the Prescott City Attorney’s office to file a lawsuit seeking damages for community “harms,” such as law enforcement costs, health care costs, and lost tax revenue from people who have become addicted.

Jeffrey Reeves, the outside attorney who explained the litigation to the council Tuesday, said after the meeting that the lawsuit would be filed in Yavapai County Superior Court – likely by summer 2019.

Matthew Podracky, senior assistant city attorney, introduced the topic by telling the council that the decision up for a vote was “whether or not to sue big pharma.”

Reeves, an attorney with the Theodora Oringher law firm of Costa Mesa, California, presented an overview of the history of the opioid-drug epidemic, as well as the proposed legal strategy.

Among the points Reeves emphasized was the large number of drug rehab group homes that have located in Prescott over the years.

“So many sober living homes have gravitated to Prescott and taken root here,” Reeves said. He maintained that Prescott’s one-time total of as many as 180 group homes put a “disproportionate” and unfair burden on Prescott.

Even though the number has dropped to about 30 in recent years, Reeves that total is still disproportionately high for Prescott’s population.

According to Reeves’ presentation, the origin of the opioid crisis can be traced back to the early 1990s, when the American Psychological Association (APA) put pain management “on the radar.”

Then in 1996, an initiative was launched to view pain as the “fifth vital sign,” comparable to temperature, blood pressure, respiratory rate, and heart rate. By 1997, prescribers began to be “pressured to dispense opioids” to help patients deal with pain, stated Reeves’ presentation.

Currently, he said, more than two Arizonans die each day from an opioid overdose.

About 18 pharmaceutical and trucking-distribution firms have been identified as possible defendants in the lawsuit, Reeves told the council.

Podracky pointed out that the engagement of the law firms – including Theodora Oringher, Andrews & Thornton, and Fennemore Craig, P.C. – would be on a purely “contingency basis,” which means that the city would face costs for the litigation only if damages are awarded by the courts. Then, the city would pay a 20 percent contingency fee from the amount awarded.

“If there is no recovery (of damages), there are no fees paid by the city,” a city memo stated.

According to the city memo, the damage awards to Prescott could be in the millions — possibly “upwards of $20 million.”

Council members, who had previously discussed the matter in closed-door executive session, were supportive of the litigation.

“I have a pretty good understanding of the impacts the sober living homes caused our city,” said Councilman Phil Goode, who previously served as the co-chairman of the city’s Ad Hoc Committee on Structured Sober Living Homes. “I think it’s reasonable to expect to recover some of those costs.”

Councilman Jim Lamerson referred to “collusionary tactics” and an “unholy alliance” that he said had formed between the medical, pharmaceutical, and real estate industries in Prescott.

Still, the council heard from local resident Sandra Smith, who asked about how the lawsuit would affect “those people who need those opioids to have a quality of life.”

After the meeting, Noah Kroloff of Global Security Innovative Strategies a member of the legal team, responded, “This is not a suit designed to eradicate opioids.”

He maintained that pharmaceutical companies “will absolutely continue to produce” the drugs. “There will continue to be a demand” for the prescription of opioids,” Kroloff said, but with “more regulation and more responsibility.”

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