Select Board approves opioid suit

Posted November 26th, 2018.

As It Appeared On
Bennington Banner
By Jim Therrien, Bennington Banner

BENNINGTON — The Select Board has unanimously endorsed working with a national law firm that is recruiting Vermont communities to sue opioid medication manufacturers over the local costs of dealing with the addiction epidemic.

However, before the vote, some board members said they would feel more comfortable if the firm’s proposed retainer agreement were reviewed first by Town Counsel Rob Woolmington, and Town Manager Stuart Hurd seconded that.

“While this appears to be straightforward,” Hurd said, this is the first such legal action the town has ever considered.

The vote to sign a retainer agreement with Sanford Heisler Sharp, a public interest law firm with offices in Washington, New York and other U.S. cities, was made contingent upon the town attorney not raising objections.

Bennington would not have to pay for the litigation, according to the proposal, with any payment to the firm coming from damages won from opioid manufacturers, distributors and other companies.

The law firm said it would accept 25 percent of any damage award recovered, with 75 percent going to the community.

The group Fed Up Vermont had suggested the idea of Bennington joining the legal effort during a Nov. 12 board meeting that included personal stories of how opioid addiction has ravaged area residents and their families.

In its proposal, Sanford Heisler Sharp said the firm will gather data from local sources and use a matrix the firm developed to estimate the costs to Bennington of addressing the addiction crisis. Town officials would then need to determine whether those costs are significant enough to warrant further action, and if so, the firm would file suit in state court.

In addition to Bennington, the firm said attorneys have begun discussions with officials in Manchester, Rutland and other Vermont communities.

Sanford Heisler Sharp currently is involved, along with other law firms, in similar court actions over opioid epidemic costs in Virginia, where numerous communities and counties have filed suit against such defendants as Purdue Pharma, Abbott Laboratories, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals; Teva Pharmaceuticals, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, and PBMs Express Scripts, Inc., CVS Health; United Health Group Inc.

Allegations in those suits include that the opioid epidemic has cost counties and cities across Virginia hundreds of millions of dollars by increasing the costs of law enforcement and court services, foster care and child placement services.

Efforts currently are under way to consolidate individual suits in Virginia, requesting that a judicial panel be formed to consider a consolidation plan.

Multiple suits around the nation seek to hold opioid manufacturers and other firms responsible for an epidemic of addiction that many medical experts blame in large part on the overprescribing of opioids for pain and on alleged fraudulent marketing activities to promote the medications to the medical community.

The actions are being compared to suits that led to settlements with the tobacco industry. In addition, suits are being pushed against similar defendants by more than two dozen states, including Vermont and New York.

A difference for Bennington if it is successful in court would be that any damages awarded in the suits on behalf of communities would go directly to those entities, rather than be distributed through state or federal governments.

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