PORT ANGELES — Clallam County has inked an agreement with a Seattle law firm to sue manufactures and wholesalers of prescription painkillers to recover the costs of fighting the opioid epidemic.
County commissioners voted 3-0 Tuesday to approve the contingency fee agreement with Keller Rohrback LLP to file a complaint in federal court, joining several Western Washington jurisdictions that have taken similar actions.
Keller Rohrback attorneys would be paid only if Clallam County recovers damages in a settlement or at trial.
Commissioners had previously voted to pursue litigation after discussing the matter with other members of the Clallam County Board of Health.
“I’ve had feedback that what we are doing is a hasty action, and what I’d like to share is that the action we are taking has no cost to the county other than the compilation of data,” Commissioner Bill Peach said in Tuesday’s board meeting.
“What’s more important in my mind is that we do share an important message, and that is that we have an opioid crisis and we are being proactive in addressing it.”
Clallam County had the highest opioid-related death rate in the state at 16.5 per 100,000 from 2012 to 2016, according to state Department of Health statistics.
More than 300 lawsuits have been filed against drug manufacturers and wholesalers nationwide. The lawsuits are being consolidated under Judge Dan Polster of Cleveland.
Polster has assembled lawyers for governments across the country, drug makers, distributors and others.
Because the aim is to broker a settlement, the judge has closed the discussions to the public and media.
Polster issued a gag order Feb. 6 that bans discussion of the settlement negotiations along with assessments of the talks or commentary on them, The Associated Press reported.
King County, the city of Tacoma, Skagit County and the cities Mount Vernon, Burlington and Sedro Woolley each have filed a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical industry, saying drug companies bear responsibility for the epidemic and for not doing enough to stop it.
Two attorneys from Keller Rohrback pitched the litigation to the seven-member Clallam County Board of Health on Jan. 16, after which time the board voted unanimously to recommend a lawsuit to county commissioners.
The Jefferson County health board has not yet been asked to join the multi-jurisdictional lawsuit, Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke said.
Jefferson County’s opioid-related death rate was 10.3 per 100,000, ranking 10th among the 39 counties of the state.
Public health officials in Clallam, Jefferson and Kitsap counties have launched a three-county Coordinated Opioid Response Project, Locke said.
“I am in the process of learning more about the lawsuit and how it might benefit small rural counties like Jefferson County,” Locke said in an email.
“I would also like to see our three-county opiate response partnership review this issue.
“We are committed to pooling our resources to address the opiate epidemic in the most effective way we can,” Locke added.
“This may be another opportunity to do so.”
Clallam County officials were asked to fill out a survey outlining the ways in which the opioid crisis was affecting their departments.
Examples of county departments affected by opioids are Health and Human Services, Sheriff’s Office, Juvenile and Family Services, Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and District and Superior courts.
The lawsuit will target opioid manufactures, distributors and pill mills — doctors and clinics where highly-addictive opioids are dispensed without a legitimate medical purpose, Keller Rohrback attorney David Ko told the Clallam County Board of Health last month.
Keller Rohrback would collect 22 percent of any money awarded to Clallam County if the amount is $10 million or less, according to the approved contingency fee agreement.
The firm would collect 20 percent of amounts exceeding $10 million, 15 percent for sums exceeding $20 million and 10 percent for recoveries of $25 million or more.
The drug companies have disputed the allegations in the lawsuits.
John Parker, senior vice president of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, a national organization that represents opioid distributors such as AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson, issued the following statement after Clallam County commissioners voted to sue:
“The misuse and abuse of prescription opioids is a complex public health challenge that requires a collaborative and systemic response that engages all stakeholders,” Parker said in an email to the Peninsula Daily News.
“Given our role, the idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated.
“Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation,” Parker added.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].