Cascade County first in Montana to pursue litigation against opioid manufacturers

Cascade County is the first in Montana to retain a legal team to bring claims against opioid manufacturers for misleading users about their addictiveness.

During their Tuesday meeting, County Commissioners approved a retention agreement with Simon Greenstone Panatier Bartlett, P.C.; Kovacich Snipes P.C. of Great Falls; Edwards, Frickle and Culver of Billings; Beck, Amsden and Stalpes PLCC of Bozeman; and Boone Karlberg P.C. of Missoula. 

Ben Snipes, of Kovacich Snipes, told County Commissioners that in 2016, healthcare professionals issued 289 million prescriptions for opioids, which he said was enough for everyone in the U.S. to have a bottle of pills.

“It’s unbelievable how prevalently these opioids are being used now…all too often in an abusive manner,” Snipes said.

According to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, drug overdoses were the third leading cause of injury-related death in Montana from 2003 to 2014, accounting for 1,334 deaths.

The rate of opioid overdose death in Montana was just below the national average of 5.5 per 100,000 in 2013-2014, at 5.4 deaths per 100,000.

Since 2000, the rate of prescription drug overdose deaths has doubled, with more than 700 deaths from prescription opioid overdose alone, according to DPHHS; for every 100 Montanans, there are 83 prescriptions written annually in the state; in 2015, more than 15 percent of high schoolers reported having taken a prescription medication without a prescription in their lifetime.

“This results in an economic burden that’s substantial nationwide and substantial right here in Cascade County,” Snipes said.

That puts a strain on the judicial system, law enforcement, first responders, treatment and rehabilitation programs.

If the county is successful in winning lawsuits against the opioid manufacturers, those funds could be put into supporting public safety services as well as education, prevention, treatment and rehabilitation programs, Snipes said.

Snipes told commissioners that opioid manufacturers pushed doctors to prescribe the drugs for chronic conditions and in higher doses, all while downplaying the addictive effects and exaggerating the capability of the abuse deterrents built into the drugs.

Snipes said that more than 100 Montanans die each year from drug overdose, 42 percent of those were related to opioids. Of those who committed suicide, Snipes said 21 percent of those committed suicide were found to have opioids in their system.

“These drugs are truly devastating our communities,” Snipes said.

The agreement is no cost to the county, but if the county wins lawsuits, the attorneys can collect up to 25 percent of the gross recovery to cover legal fees.

The attorneys are meeting with Great Falls City Commissioners during a Dec. 5 work session to discuss the possibility of a similar retention agreement.

Gallatin County Commissioners are scheduled to vote on a retention agreement for opioid litigation on Dec. 5.

According to the agenda report, Cascade County provides a number of programs and services requiring funding generated through state and federal aid, property taxes and other sources.

“Cascade County has spent unexpected and unbudgeted time and resources in its programs and services related to the opioid epidemic. County’s provision of programs and services becomes more and more difficult every year because the costs associated with providing the opioid epidemic programs and services continue to rise, yet county’s ability to generate revenue is limited by strict levy limit caps and stagnant or declining state and federal aid,” according to the agenda report. “All sums that Cascade County expends in addressing, combatting and otherwise dealing with the opioid epidemic are sums that cannot be used for other critical programs and services that Cascade County provides to county citizens, residents and visitors.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the societal costs associated with the opioid epidemic are an estimated $75 billion annually. The National Institute for Health has identified the manufacturers of certain of the opioid medications as being directly responsible for the rapid rise of the opioid epidemic by virtue of their aggressive and, according to some, unlawful and unethical marketing practices. These certain of the opioid manufacturers have faced civil and criminal liability for their actions that relate directly to the rise of the opioid epidemic.

Simon Greenstone Panatier Bartlett has already filed suits against opioid manufacturers in Texas and other cases are being filed nationally on behalf of cities, counties and states. Montana has not yet filed any opioid litigation at the state level. One of the lawyers with the firm is originally from Great Falls.

The legal team is pursuing litigation against various pharmaceutical companies who have engaged in violations of the Montana Controlled Substances Act, Montana Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and other violations of law in the fraudulent marketing and sales of certain highly addictive, opiate-derived painkillers for purposes for which they are neither safe nor effective, according to the county. 

Ben Snipes of Great Falls based Kovacich Snipes said that in showing damages to the county, they’ll look at time and resources spent by the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office and other first responders on opioid related cases, county healthcare costs and resources related to opioids, the impact at the county prosecutors office and in the county judicial system and other methods of quantifying damages.

Snipes said they’re hiring experts to help analyze “how severely the epidemic has affected Cascade County.”

The claims they file could be in state or federal court, depending on the case specifics.

“This is definitely major litigation,” Snipes told The Electric.

 

During the Nov. 7 City Commission work session, commissioners briefly discussed the possibility of pursuing litigation.

City Attorney Sara Sexe said she had some concerns related to staff time, proof of damages and incurring any taxpayer cost in pursuing litigation related to opioids.

She said commissioners should consider it as a policy decision whether to engage as a plaintiff and Mayor Bob Kelly said he wanted to lay out some sort of procedure on deciding to join lawsuits such as this.

Commissioner Bill Bronson said it would be worthwhile to have a work session and that he had three questions based on the initial presentation he heard at a county work session in early November.

“Are we really best the type of plaintiff, can we show damages and how do you quantify that,” Bronson said.

Cities, counties and towns were left out of the tobacco suits of the 1990s, which resulted in large settlements for states, but little of that money trickled down to local levels, he said.