The Lincoln County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously on Monday evening to become the 56th North Carolina government entity to join a nationwide lawsuit against opioid distributors.
Garry Whitaker, a Winston-Salem attorney representing a consortium of law firms prosecuting the case, addressed the board on the scope of the litigation.
Whitaker explained how the case got its start in West Virginia before expanding to include several other states, including North Carolina, where several surrounding counties like Gaston, Cleveland and Catawba have already joined the cause.
“It’s our position that counties have incurred costs as a result of dealing with opiate-related overdose deaths and addiction as it relates to your increased services that you have to provide at the department of social services, first responder and law enforcement levels,” Whitaker said. “There are three main opioid distributors in the United States. We have reason to believe, based on some of the settlements that they’ve entered into, that they would prefer that a (Drug Enforcement Administration) database not be revealed. Our consortium brought these actions fundamentally to get at that data because we believe that data will show a rampant failure to report suspicious orders of opioids to the DEA.”
United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has voiced his support for the lawsuit, has stated that the opioid epidemic has cost taxpayers $1 trillion since 2001, including $115 billion in 2017 alone.
In Lincoln County, opioid-related deaths have doubled over the past nine years, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Health. Whitaker also explained that western North Carolina has a high opioid prescription rate, according to the Center for Disease Control, including Lincoln County where there were 115 opioid prescriptions per 100 residents in 2016.
“It’s our position that those increases in volume orders, if properly reported, would have alerted the medical community that there was a flood of opioids, but without those reports there’s no way for the DEA to investigate the cause of those increases,” Whitaker said. “In other words, if you follow the chain from patient to doctor and then pharmacist and opioid distributor back to the manufacturer, we have a gatekeeper in the opioid distributors. It’s our position that that gatekeeping function has failed. It was their job to report suspicious orders and we say that they did not.”
When asked why the lawsuit doesn’t include physicians who may have overprescribed opioids, Whitaker explained that the consortium of law firms believes that the opioid manufacturers minimized the risks associated with the long-term prescription of opioids, while also overstating the benefits of the medication.
Lincoln County’s legal representation in the lawsuit will not cost any taxpayer dollars. The county would only have to pay 25 percent of its total gross recovery through the lawsuit as an attorney fee if the claim is resolved by compromise, settlement or trial and verdict. Lincoln County will not be charged a fee if there’s no recovery through the lawsuit.
Whitaker informed the board that the first bellwether trials are scheduled to begin in March 2019. Bellwether trials are common in Multidistrict Litigation practice where it isn’t practical to prepare every case for trial. These bellwether cases will be settled or tried and the results will be used to shape the process for addressing the remaining cases.
The Lincoln County Board of Commissioners will hold their regular monthly meeting on May 21 at 6:30 p.m. on the third floor of the James W. Warren Citizens Center, located at 115 West Main Street in Lincolnton.