Kewaunee County joins lawsuit against opioid manufacturers
KEWAUNEE- Add Kewaunee County to the list of those across the state that are seeking to file suit against a number of pharmaceutical companies for damages related to marketing of prescription opioid painkillers.
At its December board meeting, the county approved a resolution by a 19-1 vote to join the lawsuit that has already been filed in federal court. Brown, Door and Manitowoc counties also have signed on, making 60 of the state’s 72 counties that have joined the suit,
According to a press release from law firms Crueger Dickinson LLC and Simmons Hanly Conroy, the counties seek compensatory and punitive damages for millions of dollars spent each year “to combat the public nuisance created by the drug companies’ deceptive marketing campaign that misrepresents the safety and efficacy of long-term opioid use.”
Suits filed in U.S. district court in Milwaukee seek millions of dollars for the costs of social services, law enforcement and emergency care in responding to the opioid epidemic in each county. The companies created a public nuisance through deceptive marketing that misrepresents the safety of long-term opioid use, the lawsuits allege.
“County governments are bearing the brunt of the costs,” said Erin Dickinson of Crueger Dickinson, lead counsel along with partner Charles Crueger in the lawsuits filed this month. “Defendants must be held responsible for the devastating effects their actions have produced on counties across this country.”
Wisconsin has averaged more than 600 yearly opioid-related deaths in a three-year period, figures show. Milwaukee County, alone, has already had more than 300 such deaths this year.
The opioid lawsuit is similar to a case in which 46 states sued cigarette manufacturers, seeking to recover some of the billions of dollars in tobacco-related health-care costs incurred by those states and the people living in them. Four companies settled with the states in the 1990s, agreeing to pay the states more than $200 billion over a 25-year period and to cease certain marketing practices.
Kewaunee County Administrator Scott Feldt said this is similar to a class-action suit, and the county doesn’t have much to do to move it forward at this point.
“As it moves down the line, we may need to provide documentation as to the costs the county incurred to combat opioid addiction,” Feldt said.
The opioid epidemic, particularly involving the abuse of heroin and its 50-times-stronger stronger cousin, fentanyl, hits communities in a range of ways.
» Crime: Users often to turn to crime to get money to buy drugs. Brown County District Attorney David Lasee said drug issues fuel crimes ranging from burglaries and simple thefts to violent crimes like robberies.
In cases where an overdose kills someone, the DA’s office will prosecute the person who provided the drugs. Such cases are now known as “Len Bias cases,” after the former Maryland basketball star who fatally overdosed in 1986 on drugs provided by a friend, Brian Tribble; he would later be indicted on cocaine charges.
» Public safety: Drug issues place additional burdens on police and firefighters.
Police must devote time and effort tracking stolen goods that addicts have pawned for money. Firefighters and paramedics must be trained on and supplied with Narcan, the common name for a drug that can counteract a drug overdose.
» Courts: Drug cases often clog the system, as prosecutors with limited resources must sometimes choose between prosecuting drug cases and other crimes.
In recent years, Brown has hired additional prosecutors to help clear backlogged drug cases. While that can help in the short term, it’s tax money that could be used for other things.
» Jails: A backlog of drug cases can crowd county jails.
Counties with limited space, like Brown, must send inmates to other counties — and pay to house them there. Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach said his county’s costs, while not all drug-related, could approach $1 million next year.
» Health care: Users require treatment not only when they overdose but tend to suffer higher instances of hepatitis C and other conditions. Additionally, hospitals and communities face increased pressure to provide drug-treatment and detoxification beds.
Wisconsin’s opioid overdose deaths rose from 5.9 per 100,000 residents in 2006 to 10.7 per 100,000 residents in 2015, the Department of Public Health Services found. Opioid-related hospital visits in Wisconsin, which include inpatient hospitalizations and emergency department visits, have doubled in the past decade.
In the group of 28 counties that originally filed the suit, more than 320 people died from opioid overdoses between 2013 and 2015, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The grim tally in Wisconsin reached 1,824 deaths in that period.
More than two dozen states, cities and counties around the U.S. have sued to hold pharmaceutical drug-makers and distributors accountable for bad faith business practices and misrepresentation in marketing of opioids.
In 2015, more than 31,000 U.S. residents died from opioid overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Journal Sentinel and Doug Schneider of the Green Bay Press-Gazette contributed to this story.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Kewaunee County joins lawsuit against opioid manufacturers