Spokane’s legal team has changed its mind and is now recommending Spokane join dozens of other communities that are suing the manufacturers of addictive opioid painkillers.
The Spokane City Council will consider Monday a contract with Keller Rohrback, a Seattle firm that has filed dozens of legal actions in Washington, Arizona, Montana and California targeting the producers of Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet and other name-brand medications that have been linked to an uptick in overdose deaths throughout the country.
If approved, Spokane would be working with the same law firm now representing Spokane County in a class action lawsuit against Purdue Pharma that is being adjudicated in an Ohio federal courtroom.
City Council President Ben Stuckart said the City Council approached the administration last year to join the litigation, but were rebuffed at the time.
“I think they were worried there would be upfront costs. Those worries have been allayed,” Stuckart said.
The council in June asked the city’s legal team to take another look, unanimously passing a resolution that cited concerns about overdose deaths in Spokane County, statistics showing drug addiction was the third leading cause of homelessness in the region and increased costs tied to needle disposal at public sites in the city.
City Attorney Mike Ormsby told the council earlier this week that his team may have made an error in not pursuing the litigation sooner.
“Sometimes you’re wrong the first time around, or you’ve missed something,” Ormsby told the council at a briefing Monday afternoon.
Ormsby said in an interview Thursday the administration’s initial hesitancy for joining the lawsuit had to do with the amount of city staff time required to compile all the information needed to successfully argue damages.
“In order to successfully prosecute these cases, you need to produce a significant amount of information,” Ormsby said. “Our initial concern – at that point in the litigation, it was just getting off to a roll, and we were already involved in three major cases of litigation in our office.”
Much of the information about overdoses and their effect on the community are now publicly available. The council’s resolution in June asking Ormsby’s office to again look at joining the litigation listed multiple statistics available from the Spokane Regional Health District, Medical Examiner’s Office, Police Department and Detention Services to show the human and financial cost of drug addiction in the community.
The public release of information about prescriptions of opioid painkillers from the Washington Post in July show that more than 173 million pills were shipped to pharmacies in Spokane County between 2006 and 2012. The county’s population in 2012 was 475,372, which means enough pills were shipped to the county for every resident to receive about 53 pills annually over that 7-year period.
Purdue, which has filed for bankruptcy in the wake of multiple lawsuits filed by attorneys general that include Washington’s Bob Ferguson, announced the framework for a legal settlement last month that would set up a trust to dispense an estimated billions of dollars in damages to communities affected by the opioid crisis.
“This unique framework for a comprehensive resolution will dedicate all of the assets and resources of Purdue for the benefit of the American public,” said Steve Miller, chairman of Purdue’s board of directors, in a statement announcing the agreement Sept. 16. The agreement is subject to legal review, and Ferguson has signaled he’ll reject it as insufficient.
Ormsby said the time was right for Spokane to join the litigation so that it could be involved in determining how any damages are spent locally.
“In order to have a say in what you do with that, you really need to be involved and at the table,” Ormsby said. “We do want to have that say.”
Stuckart suggested the money might be spent on treatment programs, but his tenure on the City Council will likely be up long before Spokane ever sees any money from a settlement.
“I just think councilmembers are looking for a way to affect change,” Stuckart said. “We can spend that money on services for people that are addicted.”
The contract with Keller Rohrback calls for a $25,000 retainer fee, as well as coverage of legal costs. The firm will also be eligible to collect at least 20% of any damages recovered as a result of the lawsuit, with a greater portion of damages should the amount the city receives exceed $10 million.
The contract will be considered by the full City Council at an afternoon meeting at City Hall on Monday at 3:30 p.m. No public testimony will be taken before the vote.
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