Commission to sue opioid makers over cost of drug epidemic

BUCKHANNON – The Upshur County on Thursday approved an order officially declaring opioid-related issues in the county a public nuisance.

The order enables the commission “to take any and all actions which it deems proper and necessary to abate the public nuisance caused by the opioid crisis, including the filing of a legal action against any responsible parties.”

And the county is doing just that in the form of filing a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies.

County administrator Carrie Wallace explained the law firm the county has hired to sue opioid manufacturers and distributors to recoup the cost to the county of the opioid epidemic – Wheeling-based Fitzsimmons Law Firm, PLLC – recommended the county approve the order prior to proceeding with litigation against drug companies.

Commissioner Terry Cutright made a motion to approve the order, which was seconded by commissioner Troy “Buddy” Brady prior to passing unanimously.

The commission then approved a contingent fee contract with Fitzsimmons Law Firm, which authorizes the firm to sue certain pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors, suppliers “and all others who may be potentially liable” for damages the county has suffered as a result of the opioid epidemic. According to a previous Record Delta article, the county will only have to pay Fitzsimmons Law Firm for its services if the firm wins a settlement for the county – and the amount paid will equal 25 percent of the total damages awarded.

Cutright made a motion to approve and sign the contingent fee contract with Fitzsimmons Law Firm, which was seconded by Brady before passing unanimously.

Following Thursday morning’s meeting, commission president Sam Nolte expressed confidence in Fitzsimmons Law Firm, which has been hired by other West Virginia counties attempting to recoup opioid epidemic-related damages.

“They’re very familiar with this,” Nolte said. “They have several other counties that are using them, and they seem to be very familiar with the case. They seem very knowledgeable about the whole situation.”

Nolte said pharmaceutical companies should shoulder some of the responsibility for the havoc opioids have wreaked in West Virginia communities.

“There should have been some red flags for these pharmaceutical companies,” Nolte said. “They have certain things in place to where they know there’s too many prescription pills going into particular areas, and they did nothing about it. It was obvious. It wasn’t like you were talking about a 100 or a thousand; you were talking about thousands upon thousands, millions upon millions when you’re talking about the state.”

The opioid epidemic has been costly to the county due to skyrocketing regional jail bill expenses and a rise in drug-related crimes that might not have otherwise been committed, Nolte added.

“A lot of the crimes that are committed may not look like they’re drug related, but there’s drugs behind them,” he said. “It could be a breaking-and-entering. There’s a lot of different crimes associated with drug use that would not have happened if it wasn’t because of the opioid issue.”

Nolte also stressed that opioid addiction strikes every socioeconomic segment of the population.

“Pretty much every family I know has been touched by this epidemic,” he said. “It’s not something that’s just a couple families here or there; what kind of economic climate you come from doesn’t matter. It affects everybody.”

In other news, the commission approved and signed a proclamation presented by Ginnie Dixon, chair of the Upshur County Tobacco Prevention Coalition, declaring Feb. 19-23 Through with Chew Week throughout Upshur County. The proclamation urges smokeless tobacco users to quit during that week – even if just for one day.

According to information highlighted by Dixon, 23 percent of male high school students in West Virginia use spit tobacco – one of the highest proportions in the nation – while 15.9 percent of adult males in the Mountain State use smokeless tobacco, a rate that is double that of the national average.

According to the proclamation, smokeless tobacco users are 50 times more likely to contract some form of oral cancer, including lips, tongue, cheeks, gums, throat and larynx. 

Before adjourning, the commission also:

-Reviewed and signed correspondence to community development representative Todd Goddard containing Community Development Block Grant – Small Cities Block Grant request for payment for the Elkins Road PSD Phase III water system improvements in the amount of $9,264.

-Received correspondence from Joseph N. Geiger Jr., director of the W.Va. Archives of History, announcing the award of $10,000 to be used by the county Circuit Clerk’s office to digitize chancery and law case files, the award of $955 to be used by the assessor’s office to purchase a color scanner and requesting a response from the commission as to whether it wants to pursue the records project.

-Approved and signed a revised professional services agreement between the commission and Region VII Planning and Development Council to obtain GIS professional services to assist with the telephone conversion portion of the addressing and mapping project. The project must be completed by June 30, and the cost won’t exceed $10,000.

-Received correspondence from Gov. Jim Justice committing the remaining $1,216,566 from the state’s fiscal year 2017 Community Development Block Grant allocation for the Elkins Road PSD, Phase III Water System Improvement Project.

-The regular commission meeting scheduled for March 8 has been canceled.

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