A federal judge has ruled counties and cities like Butler County that have sued major drug companies over the opiate epidemic can proceed with their lawsuits, denying a motion to dismiss by drug manufacturers and distributors.
Butler County sued 20 major drug companies and distributors for $5 million in November 2017. The county’s lawsuit has been folded into what is known as multidistrict litigation, a tool used to consolidate similar actions, reduce duplication of efforts, and facilitate a quicker disposition of the cases.
The federal judge handling the case, Dan Aaron Polster in the Northern District Court of Ohio, ruled recently the lawsuits will proceed.
“Plaintiffs allege that defendants have contributed to the addiction of millions of Americans to these prescription opioids and to the foreseeable result that many of those addicted would turn to street drugs,” Polster wrote. “While these allegations do not fit neatly into the legal theories chosen by plaintiffs, they fit nevertheless. Whether Plaintiffs can prove any of these allegations remains to be seen, but this court holds that they will have that opportunity.”
He selected two cases from Ohio and one from Chicago as test cases, meaning the decisions made in those cases will stand for the rest. He has set trial for September.
“It keeps us in the hunt,” said Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser. “And keeps us in the position of keeping the pressure on and the court to keep the pressure on to move these cases to a conclusion … and to continue, as the judge is doing, to eliminate the defenses that are being raised to slow things down.”
The opiate epidemic has cost the county dearly in numerous areas including Children Services, the sheriff, courts, Job and Family Services and the mental health and addiction board, officials said.
“Whatever money we would get, we would of course want to apply that to the increased expenses we’ve incurred because of the opiate crisis,” said Butler County Commissioner T.C. Rogers.
When the commissioners filed the lawsuit, Commissioner Don Dixon likened it to the tobacco fight decades ago. He said it is not just about recouping costs already incurred, it’s about funding education and other preventative measures to curtail the epidemic altogether.
“Regardless of what caused it, we have to find a solution,” Dixon said. “It’s going to take money to find that solution. If we are given the ability to obtain some additional funds we’ll certainly be putting it into services for that cause.”
In the throes of the crisis, the Butler County Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Services Board devised a plan to combat the problem. The cost in April 2016 was estimated at $3.6 million annually, and the board has earmarked $1.2 million for the 2019-20 fiscal year.
MHARS board Executive Director Scott Rasmus said prevention is the least costly program the board supports .
“It goes a long way and a lot of clients can be reached with more minimal amounts of costs per person,” he said, adding prevention programming costs about $100 per person on the high end, but resident addiction treatment runs as much as $30,000 per client.
When the county’s lawsuit was consolidated in the combined litigation, Butler County Health Commissioner Jenny Bailer said money is crucial in the opioid fight, to help those already addicted as well as those who might avoid the drugs because of preventative measures the money could fund.
“There is so much work that needs to be done to get out ahead of this epidemic we are experiencing as a country, as a county, as a state — and it all requires money,” she said. “So any money that would come from this lawsuit that could go back to the people doing the actual work on the ground, working one-on-one in treatment and rehabilitation and especially in prevention would be really great.”
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