Missoula County reluctant to join lawyers’ opioid lawsuit against Big Pharma

A team of “top-shelf” attorneys have asked Missoula County to join the makings of a class-action lawsuit against Big Pharma over the opioid crisis, though county officials remain reluctant to jump in without sufficient local data.

Deputy County Attorney John Hart on Wednesday told commissioners that a team of lawyers, including those with Missoula-based Boone Karlberg, are pressing the county to join the suit “sooner rather than later.”

The Montana Attorney General is expected to file a suit by the end of the year.

“I’m continuing to get lobbied by Montana lawyers to have Missoula County jump into the opioid litigation,” Hart said. “If the county is interested, there’s top-shelf attorneys in the state who will drop everything to come to Missoula to talk to you about the strengths of an opioid claim by Missoula County.”

Earlier this week, the same team of lawyers convinced Cascade County commissioners to join the lawsuit, and to do so before the Attorney General files his own. That team includes Scott Stearns of Boone Karlberg of Missoula and Ben Snipes of Kovacich Snipes in Great Falls, along with firms from Billings and Bozeman.

Gallatin County is expected to consider the offer early next month.

But as the law firms look to make their case to Missoula County, commissioners remain reluctant, citing the nation’s litigious trends and the absence of actual facts. They suggested it wasn’t right to join a lawsuit based solely on data presented by firms that stand to profit from the outcome.

“I’d like information, but not necessarily from a plaintiff firm,” said Commissioner Cola Rowley. “We’ve been given no information about this. Can’t we have actual data rather than someone trying to sell us into a lawsuit? That’s not that helpful.”

Sales pitch or not, Hart said that’s likely the information the attorneys are looking to present. In Great Falls, Snipes told Cascade County commissioners that 100 Montanans die each year from a drug overdose, and 42 percent of those deaths were related to opioids.

While Missoula County officials don’t deny that opioid abuse exists in Missoula, there aren’t any local figures to prove that such abuse has burdened the county financially, or warrants a lawsuit.

“It’s not that we don’t believe there’s an opioid crisis or there’s not more we could be doing about it, but what’s the connection with litigating against Pharma to make that problem better in our community?” Rowley said. “In order for us to have a claim, it would have to have been financially detrimental to the county.”

Hart said the team of litigators could help the county quantify the financial impact of opioid abuse on a number of local systems. That includes family services, crisis intervention, suicide prevention and public health.

He said his office has not yet reached a decision on whether to recommend joining the suit.

“One of the reasons our office is lukewarm about this is that we have not seen, at least from a criminal justice standpoint, a significant opioid problem in Missoula County that’s costing us a lot of money and that we can quantify,” Hart said.

According to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, the rate of opioid deaths in Montana remains just below the national average at 5.4 per 100,000 people.

Still, the National Institutes for Health suggested that certain opioid manufacturers are directly responsible for the opioid crisis ravaging some parts of the country, largely due to aggressive marketing practices.

“Do we have a huge problem with meth in Missoula? Absolutely. Do we have a huge problem with heroin? Absolutely,” Hart said. “Is there a connection between heroin and opioid pharmaceuticals? Sure.

“I just felt compelled to let you know there are top-shelf firms in the state who are ready, willing and able to talk to you about the legal options you have in terms of the opioid crisis and how that might be a claim for Missoula County.”

Snipes told Cascade County commissioners that joining the suit would come at no cost to the country. Gallatin County commissioners are also expected to consider a similar offer next month.

The Montana Attorney General is also expected to file a suit by the end of this year, one of the reasons the law firms are looking to move on the issue sooner than later. If the AG was first to file suit, it could supersede any claims filed later by individual counties.

Commissioners will likely consider their options and decide next month.

“I’m willing to be convinced, though I’ll be critical of data provided by a plaintiff attorney,” Rowley said. “That’s the danger of bringing in only that side – it’s only one side of the story. If someone in health has some facts, I’m open to it.”