Missoula to join lawsuit against makers of prescription opioids

A Missoula City Council committee on Wednesday decided to join a lawsuit filed by other governments in Montana, including Great Falls and Lake County, against the manufacturers and wholesalers of prescription opioid drugs.

The council will sign a retention agreement with Montana Litigation Counsel that includes a local law firm, Boone Karlberg, among others.

The retention agreement allows the city of Missoula to join in the suit and benefit from any settlements more directly, Mayor John Engen said. Joining Montana Attorney General Tim Fox in a similar suit would not reap the same trickle-down effect.

“What this retention agreement allows us to do is to pursue some of those damages and receive direct benefit from the suit rather than joining the Montana attorney general, for example, and being in a position of sharing that pot of money in a way that’s largely out of our control,” Engen said.

Scott Stearns, an attorney with Boone Karlberg, said that opioid drugs are more widely used than tobacco, and deaths caused by abusing opioids outnumber those from all other illegal drug uses.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the cost of the nation’s opioid epidemic is about $55.7 billion annually. About 45 percent is attributed to health-care costs, 9 percent goes toward criminal justice costs, and 46 percent is attributable to workplace costs, such as a loss of productivity.

“You can see a huge trend line up of people buying opioids since the late ‘90s. This lawsuit seeks recovery of damages associated with those changes,” Stearns said.

Major pharmaceutical manufacturers and wholesalers are being sued for false and fraudulent marketing of opioid pain medications, refusing to perform long-term studies regarding the effects of the drugs after their over-distribution in the 1990s, and incentivising the false safety and efficacy of opioids.

According to the CDC, in Missoula County, about 71.2 prescriptions were dispensed per 100 persons per year from 2006 to 2017.

“When you go into a doctor’s office, you now see a pain scale that you never used to see before — 1 through 10 — a happy face to a sad face. We treat pain in America completely differently now, here, in the 2000s,” Stearns said.

The law firms involved with the entire lawsuit require a compensation that will not exceed 25 percent of gross recovery. No expenses will be charged in advance.

The city of Missoula will be joining a newly filed lawsuit through the Great Falls division of U.S. District Court, and includes multiple districts such as Lake County, and the counties of Deer Lodge and Anaconda. The multi-district litigation, or MDL, will be transferred to a federal court in Ohio and will be overseen by a law firm there, Simon Greenstone Panatier.

The transfer should be quick, Stearns said, and there is a possibility that Missoula County will also join the suit.

“Because hundreds of cities and counties and townships and the like have filed these lawsuits, the federal system has this MDL process that allows one judge to preside over preliminary and procedural matters,” Stearns said.

Councilman Bryan von Lossberg said he was pleased with the law firm chosen in Ohio.

“I remember specifically meeting with a representative from Simon Greenstone, and was completely satisfied,” von Lossberg said. “That firm is well-positioned relative to the litigations going on. It goes without saying this is going on not just in the state but across the entire country.”

Stearns said that after about a decade of the multidistrict tobacco litigation through the state, cities and counties didn’t see much of the benefits from the settlement. These would have positively influenced law enforcement, city and county health departments, and jail diversion.

“What we found with tobacco was that it didn’t trickle down to the local level, so the approach with the opioid lawsuits is different from the tobacco lawsuits in that way,” Stearns said in an interview with Missoula Current.

The goal, Stearns said, is to hold large pharmaceutical companies accountable for their negligence. Boone Karlberg doesn’t usually get involved in cases like these, he said, but has a personal connection to the issue.

He represented a drug-addicted woman in Missoula who later received treatment. She died of a drug overdose in 2015.

“Ever since that time, I’ve been looking for a way to make something right,” he said. “I want people to realize this is personal to me, not just professional.”