Pasco County has joined the national trend for municipalities to fight back against distributors and manufacturers of opioid medications.
County commissioners voted to become one of several plaintiffs in litigation that seeks to replicate the kind of payouts attorneys won in the late 1990s against the tobacco industry.
Pensacola-based Levin Papantonio will represent Pasco County. The law firm is part of a consortium that is pursuing lawsuits in several states including West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky.
At stake is money that could be made available to the county for drug addiction treatment and the costs to law enforcement.
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco spoke in favor of the lawsuit, prior to the county commissioners’ vote on Jan. 23 in New Port Richey.
“We feel the epidemic every day,” Nocco said.
In 2016, Pasco County had 165 drug overdose deaths, and 120 were related to opioids.
This is a legacy of marketing strategies that promoted prescription opioids as safe and nonaddictive, the sheriff said.
“It’s actually a pill that made them addicts,” Nocco said. “Someone is accountable for it. They should be sued,” the sheriff said.
Nocco noted the unexpected consequences from the state’s successful closure of pill mills, which distributed the opioids. He said people addicted to prescription pain medications turned to other sources, including heroin and fentanyl.
The sheriff recalled an instance when officers found a man beating on the chest of a homeless man. Initially, it appeared to be an assault. Instead, Nocco said it was a heroin overdose.
“He was trying to revive him,” Nocco said.
Pasco County deputies routinely carry Narcan, a medication that can help reverse the effects of an overdose.
In December, Pasco County commissioners heard a workshop presentation from attorney Jeff Gaddy, of Levin Papantonio.
The local law firm of Lucas/Magazine initially approached the county about the lawsuit proposal.
No upfront costs will be charged to the county. If a settlement is reached, attorneys would be eligible for a maximum 25 percent contingency fee from the county’s share of the settlement.
The lawsuits are filed against drug distributors and manufacturers. They allege that false claims were made about the safety of opioids, and excessive pill distribution that amounted to a “public nuisance.”
The lawsuits also allege that distributors failed to report suspicious orders to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, as required by law.
Any settlement would seek to establish abatement funds that would be used to recoup public dollars spent battling the opioid crisis.
Published January 31, 2018