OSAGE | Mitchell County Attorney Mark Walk and other county officials are seeking legal action against several opioid manufacturers outside Iowa, in response to what they say is a growing public health epidemic stemming from the over-prescription of those drugs.
The pending lawsuit is a collaboration between several different parties, including the Mitchell County Board of Supervisors, the Iowa State Association of Counties (ISAC) and national law firms who want to help in the litigation process.
At the Mitchell County Board of Supervisors' meeting Dec. 5, the board unanimously approved a resolution to pursue legal action.
They were acting on an engagement letter and other paperwork from ISAC, which recommended that Iowa counties file lawsuits against Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Endo Pharmaceuticals and their related companies.
Walk said he has been discussing the possibility of filing a lawsuit before the meeting Dec. 5.
"ISAC is recommending that everyone join in it," he said of the engagement letter and overall process. "I was pretty much up to speed on this because we had been talking to another firm for three to four months about doing this."
The firms involved are Creuger Dickinson, Simmons Hanly Conroy and von Briesen. Walk hopes to have a formal lawsuit filed in the next six months, but emphasized this was a preliminary estimate.
Bill Peterson, ISAC's executive director, said the topic has been on the organization's radar for the past couple years. He added he attended a meeting in October where lawyers from Creuger Dickinson and Simmons Hanly Conroy held presentations about why filing lawsuits against the aforementioned opioid manufacturers was plausible.
Peterson added that each Iowa county that participates with ISAC and the national law firms would file a separate suit. Those suits would be filed in the Northern District of Ohio because the manufacturers are out of state, so the cases must be federal.
So far, nine counties scattered across Iowa — including Mitchell — have stated they are interested in filing a lawsuit, Peterson said. He added the goal is having as many of Iowa's 99 counties join as possible.
It's unclear whether other local counties plan on joining. Tim Latham, a member of Cerro Gordo County's Board of Supervisors, said he and his colleagues have had preliminary talks but no formal discussion about the topic.
"It's floating around," Latham said. "We're getting more information before we jump on the bandwagon."
Ultimately, Mitchell County's upcoming lawsuit aims to recoup potential damages that counties have encumbered from added court costs, police work and similar issues.
Peterson said it's too soon to say how much money could be recovered for different areas, including Mitchell County.
"As the lawsuit progresses and damages are identified and there is somewhere down the road a settlement … then yes, counties would recover damages on behalf of their citizens," he said.
Mitchell County Supervisor Shannon Paulus has lived in the county for the past 45 years. She said the issue has gotten worse in recent years, as more opioid overdoses have been reported.
She added, however, that fatalities have been avoided because of the county's medical facilities. Still, she believes there may be an issue with how physicians prescribe medication.
"If there’s 50 people and there’s 75 prescriptions, then you’re obviously overwriting the prescription," Paulus said of the issue.
Multiple pharmaceutical companies targeted in this pending litigation all said in statements to the Globe Gazette they are committed to combating the opioid crisis, and plan on fighting the upcoming lawsuits.
Peterson said it could take years before counties like Mitchell receive money due to monetary damages, pending a positive outcome in the litigation process.
Walk said pursuing legal action is more than just a money grab — it's also about trying to stop the consequences of opioid abuse in his county and other parts of North Iowa.
"It’s the babies that are born that test positive of opioids, it’s the Department of Human Services involvement," he said about one such consequence. "One person using can have an effect on 10 people in the county."