County hires law firm to sue drug companies

by Kate Shunney

Two of three Morgan County Commissioners voted last Thursday to hire the Skinner Law Firm to sue drug manufacturers, distributors and suppliers and seek damages to cover the costs of tackling opioid and related addiction locally.

Stephen Skinner had offered his services to the county in December, but commissioners weren’t prepared to make a decision then, they said.

Skinner Law Firm, of Charles Town, already represents Berkeley and Jefferson counties in similar lawsuits. Morgan County makes the fourth county the firm will represent.

On March 1, Commission President Joel Tuttle and Commissioner Bob Ford voted to hire Skinner’s firm and signed a contingent fee contract with the firm.

The commissioners also adopted a resolution as part of the lawsuit process. The document says “the wrongful distribution of prescription pain pills, including hydrocodone and oxycodone has created a public nuisance to the people of Morgan County” and the county will use its legal power to abate, or end, the nuisance.

The resolution states: “Whereas between 2007 and 2012, millions of doses of prescription pain pills were sold in West Virginia and in Morgan County which has a 2010 census population of 17,541. The dumping of millions of pain pills into our community has spawned a public health and safety hazard to the residents of Morgan County, devastated our families, hurt our economy, wasted our public resources, and created a generation of narcotic dependence.”

The resolution says the county has hired Skinner Law Firm “to hold accountable those in the chain of distribution who caused this public nuisance and abate the same by seeking all civil remedies which may be afforded under West Virginia law.”

Under the contract with Skinner Law Firm, the county agrees to pay the attorneys 25 percent of any amount they receive as a result of the lawsuit. The firm gets nothing if the suit is unsuccessful or yields no judgment from the courts.

Skinner said there are more than 400 entities involved in the “national multi-district litigation” against the drug companies. In December, there was half that number.

While there is a push now to consolidate those lawsuits against the drug companies, Skinner said they will likely take years to resolve.

“It could be as short as a year or decades. I think we will see a push to get these cases moving towards resolution within two to three years,” he said.

“This is an incredibly complex national litigation that the judge in Cleveland is attempting to simplify and push towards resolution in order to avoid a protracted legal battle on every issue,” Skinner said in an email in response to questions about the case. “Part of the litigation will be painfully slow as the judge pushed hard on all sides to find a pathway to resolution.”

As part of the case, the Skinner Law Firm will collect data about the local costs of widespread addiction to pain pills and heroin. It is widely accepted that most heroin users began their addiction with prescription painkillers, both legally prescribed and bought on the street.

“Right now, we’ll be looking at the data from the county on the fiscal impact the epidemic has had on the courts, on law enforcement, jail costs, etc. We will also look at projecting how to deal with the aftermath of the epidemic including the costs of treatment and prevention,” Skinner said.

Commissioner Bob Ford said last Thursday that he doesn’t believe the lawsuit will bring Morgan County any money. Those who benefit will be attorneys, he said.

“I don’t think it’ll make a whole lot of difference, and I won’t be around to see it,” he said.

Commissioner Ken Reed, who is a pharmacist and does business with drug companies, recused himself from the discussion and vote on March 1.

According to the contract with the Skinner Law Firm, the lawsuit will seek focus on damages “caused by the opioid epidemic against certain pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors, suppliers, and all others who may be potentially liable.”

“I hope that we can bring some justice to Morgan County so the taxpayers can recover the costs of the epidemic,” said Skinner.