City ponders opioid lawsuit

BUCKHANNON — Should Buckhannon City Council vote to join a class action lawsuit that’s being brought against pharmaceutical manufacturers for dumping massive amounts of opioids into the Mountain State?

That was one of the key questions council pondered during its Thursday meeting, but made no definitive decision on the matter, opting to wait until its April 19 meeting when mayor David McCauley and city attorney Tom O’Neill hope to have more information to present.

The city recently received a letter from Charles R. “Rusty” Webb of the Charleston-based law firm, Webb Law Centre PLLC, offering to represent the city in a class action suit against opioid manufactures and distributors. According to his April 4 letter to the city, Webb currently represents 28 cities, municipalities and counties in similar suits against drug manufacturers for “excessive distribution of pills.”

O’Neill asked council how it wished to proceed, saying the first decision the city needs to make is who will represent it, should Buckhannon decide to pursue litigation against opioid manufacturers.

“It’s way outside my area of competence, so I could not represent the city beyond outside counsel management,” O’Neill said. “The question that council should consider is whether or not it makes sense to join that group [that Webb Law Centre is representing] or seek its own counsel as part of litigation.”

McCauley asked O’Neill if he was ready to make a recommendation to council about how it should proceed.

O’Neill said he thought the city should approach Webb to discuss the terms of his offer of representation.

“The purpose of this is to compensate local governments for the cost of law enforcement, the cost of Narcan (an opioid-antagonist capable of reversing an overdose), the cost of firefighting, the cost of societal damage and social services,” O’Neill said. “When we discuss the drug epidemic in our state and country and all of the ills that it’s responsible for, each of those ills has a dollar figure attached to it as far as local government is concerned, so the purpose of this is to seek reimbursement for wrongful acts by these corporate actors in dumping opioid medication recklessly — or frankly, probably intentionally —into our communities far beyond the community’s rational need.”

Councilman CJ Rylands asked O’Neill to outline any potential risks or costs to the city. O’Neill replied that typically such class action lawsuits have “little to no risk to the client.” Compensation is usually paid on a contingency basis, O’Neill added, meaning the city will only have to pay the law firm representing it if it is awarded a settlement.

“There will be a major settlement on the order of the tobacco settlement 20 years ago, and the question is, ‘Does the city of Buckhannon want to be named a party in the lawsuit that is going to precipitate that settlement?’” O’Neill said.

Councilman David Thomas said it’s important to consider all the parties benefiting from the drug epidemic, including the manufacturers of the life-saving drug, Narcan or Naloxone.

“It’s a multi-faceted problem that we have in our country today, and I don’t really think we’re looking at it that way oftentimes,” Thomas remarked. “I think there’s another side of this whole equation that ought to have some discussion in our society. That’s just my opinion.”

O’Neill ultimately recommended council authorize himself and McCauley to enter into discussions with Webb and/or other attorneys to hash out a representation agreement, which could be presented at council’s next meeting on April 19. Council members agreed but did not officially vote on the matter.

McCauley noted that while the West Virginia Municipal League has recommended cities and towns join a class-action lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, the organization did not specify or endorse one particular law firm over another. According to Webb’s letter, his firm is representing Charleston, Huntington and Parkersburg.

In February, the Upshur County Commission entered into a contract with the Wheeling-based Fitzsimmons Law Firm PLLC, which will represent it in a suit against drug manufacturers.

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