City Commissioners consider retaining legal team for opioid litigation

City Commissioners will vote tonight on whether to retain lawyers for potential opioid litigation.

Staff is recommending that the city retain Simon, Greenstone, Panatier, Bartlett, P.C. and Montana litigation counsel team that includes 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.

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

Great Falls discusses opioid litigation; suits filed in federal court on behalf of Cascade, Gallatin counties

The firms have already filed a case in federal court on behalf of Cascade and Gallatin counties. According to the Missoula Current, Missoula County commissioners are still mulling whether to retain the lawyers for opioid claims.

Cascade County first in Montana to pursue litigation against opioid manufacturers

Opioid addiction has become a national crisis and local governments have also felt the effects. Cascade County and City of Great Falls officials have said they don’t currently have detailed information on the direct effects here, but public safety and judicial bodies have indicated anecdotally that they are feeling the strain.

The societal costs associated with the opioid epidemic are staggering and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, amount to over $75 billion annually, according to the staff report. The National Institute for Health has identified the manufacturers and distributors of certain opioid-based medications, by virtue of their aggressive practices, as being directly responsible for the rapid rise of the opioid epidemic, according to the legal teams.

According to the staff report, the theory of the potential claim for the City of Great Falls is based on damages incurred as a result of this conduct and the damages consist, in part, of city resources having been spent on dealing with the ramifications of the opioid epidemic. The total scope of the damages would be subject to investigation by retained forensic experts.

The proposed retainer agreement would not cause any direct expense for the city. The legal teams would be compensated reimbursed through a contingency fee of 25 percent of any gross recovery from any potential settlement or award. Indirect expense may be incurred through staff time necessary to assist in any forensic investigation to determine the scope of the City’s potential damages and in other participation in the litigation.

In a memo to commissioners from City Manager Greg Doyon, city staff indicated the current lack of concrete data, but overall support for retaining the legal team.

Doyon cautioned commissioners that litigation will take years.

“Be prepared for the long haul,” he wrote. “The city should not be expending any appropriations but for time of staff. Any expenditure would need to be approved by the commission. If the Commission seeks to partner with the law firm, there should be an understanding that the firm will not take on cases against the city during the duration of the litigation.”

The Great Falls Housing Authority only had one arrest/eviction recently related to opioid. In that case, an elderly person was having opioids mailed to them from Canada and then selling the drugs. Their main drug issues are marijuana and methamphetamine, according to the memo.

Great Falls Police Chief Dave Bowen wrote that he feels strongly about opioid abuse and the role the pharmaceutical companies played in creating the crisis, “I am also aware of the difficulty of quantifying their impact strictly from a law enforcement perspective.”

“As I reflected on law enforcement’s ability to demonstrate this impact, I realize that there is a greater measure of impact when considering more illicit drugs such as methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana,” Bowen wrote. “Prescription pill abuse has been around for years and is compounding the problem in our community, however it is also difficult to attach fixed numbers that accurately reflect the scope of the problem.”

Bowen wrote that if the city were to win any cases against opioid manufacturers, he’d like to use the money to offset costs for education, prevention and ongoing expenses to GFPD for providing products like Narcan and specific officer certifications.

Great Falls Fire Rescue Chief Steve Hester wrote that no data exists to indicate opioid addiction impacts to the fire department.

“Is call volume up? Yes. Can it directly be attributed in part to this problem? No,” Hester wrote.

In 2016, Great Falls Emergency Services administered Narcan 56 times, which Hester wrote isn’t a lot considering the number of medical calls in the city.

To collect data, GFFR would need to setup a special study in patient reports in the department’s software and to determine the number of drug overdoses, GFFR staff would have to open and read each patient report.

Annually, GFFR response to about 5,000 EMS calls and to get historical data, it would take about five minutes for each report, or about 400 hours for one person to retrieve the information, Hester wrote.

“We do not have the staff hours to take on getting historical data and while we can anecdotally comment on impact, there isn’t any comparison that we could come up with that would help prosecutors,” Hester wrote.

If the city received a settlement payment, Hester wrote that it would best spent on enforcement, prevention and treatment, but GFFR doesn’t operate in those areas.