Palm Beach County considers suing drug companies over opioid crisis

At the suggestion of Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, the county is looking into suing drug companies whose products are at the heart of the opioid crisis.

County Attorney Denise Nieman said she will have her staff examine the legal landscape to determine if pharmaceutical companies have been successfully sued, which jurisdictions have been involved and what law firms have taken on the work. She said she does not expect to report back until some time in August at the earliest.

After commissioners unanimously backed McKinlay’s push for a review of options, Nieman also made clear that her staff won’t be the ones going toe to toe against Big Pharma, whose deep pockets and political clout would make them formidable opponents in any legal battle.

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“We would not be handling this in-house,” Nieman said. “This is a big specialty area that is beyond our expertise.”

The opioid crisis has devastated Palm Beach County families, and it’s done a number on the county’s finances, too. Additional law enforcement, fire rescue and health care resources have been poured into the fight.

McKinlay said she wants Nieman and her staff to see if the county can recoup some of what they are spending to combat problems associated with people getting hooked on drugs that are life-saving in tiny, regulated doses but lethal when used improperly.

Underscoring the out-sized problem of opioid abuse in Palm Beach County, Florida Gov. Rick Scott traveled to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office just outside West Palm Beach Tuesday for the ceremonial signing of a bill (HB 477) that increases penalties for those caught in possession of or selling fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times more powerful than morphine.

A handful of states — Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio — have sued drug companies, arguing that they are at least in part to blame for the spiraling opioid epidemic. A report from the National Association of Counties also notes that counties in West Virginia, New York and Illinois have filed suit.

The suits are reminiscent of the legal attacks states mounted in the 1990s against tobacco companies, who were knocked for their advertising practices and for increasing health care costs.

After years of litigation, the largest four tobacco companies in the U.S. reached a master settlement in 1998, agreeing to pay a combined $5 trillion over 25 years.

Movies have been made about various aspects of the legal battles, and County Mayor Paulette Burdick mentioned a noteworthy figure in that fight.

“Where is the spirit of Bob Montgomery right now?” Burdick wondered aloud. “He took on the tobacco industry.”

Montgomery, who died in 2008, helped Florida win an $11.3 billion settlement against the tobacco industry, whose products led to illnesses that drove up the state’s Medicaid costs.

Before the meeting, McKinlay wrote a memo to her colleagues telling them that she would be using some of her speaking time Tuesday to “request that the County Attorney explore options about filing a suit against pharmaceutical companies for alleged deceptive marketing practices for their opioid painkillers.”

When McKinlay did make that request, Burdick was quick to sign on to it.

“I don’t have any problem with it,” she said.

Neither did Commissioner Steven Abrams.

“I would welcome the analysis,” Abrams said.

But Abrams asked Nieman about the possible repercussions of filing suit, such as a countersuit. He said he’s not sure the county should be the entity filing suit.

The daughter of a former aide to McKinlay died of a drug overdose in November. Two days later, The Palm Beach Post reported a series of stories detailing the scope of the opioid crisis in the county.

McKinlay has been vocal in pushing the county and the state to do more to combat the problem.

In a re-election campaign message sent to constituents on July 4, McKinlay noted the public battle against opioid abuse.

“Our opioid battle is gaining traction,” McKinlay wrote. “Last week, the Florida Association of Counties acknowledged our progress by presenting me with the Marlene Young Presidential Advocacy Award. Governor Scott has now extended the State of Emergency I originally requested in May, and we’ve been approved for much needed funding.”

McKinlay said the public battle against the crisis had given her “one more thing worth celebrating,” a line that drew a lengthy rebuke from one of those who received the memo.

“If you find “reasons to celebrate” fighting opiode addiction, in the form being championed by politics, I think you are actually missing the picture,” the constituent wrote to McKinlay. “People are taking opiodes because they no longer feel “hope.” They no longer believe in elected officials, they no longer believe in government, they no longer believe in the social structure, and in fact, they have actually given up acting as active individuals hoping to sway poitics. Self medication against life as we know it from elected officials like you.”

The constituent, who did did not put their name to the message to McKinlay, then said it is understandable why some have given up on government in Palm Beach County, given the sway development interests hold here.

Those addicted to drugs seek an escape, the constituent wrote.

“They seek it because people like you, a supposed representative of the ‘people,’ do your best to make sure they can find their escape in death rather than their relief in life,” the constituent wrote. “Self medication against life. Self medication against a system that only benefits those who make sure people like you get a seat in power. Democracy has died.”

McKinlay replied with an email, noting the circumstances of the death of her former aide’s daughter and disputing the notion that people abusing drugs have lost faith in their elected officials.

“You are entitled to your opinion,” McKinlay wrote, “but I find it repulsive.”

While the opioid email to McKinlay was unsigned, an earlier email to her from the same email address was signed by Patricia D. Curry, a Loxahatchee resident who has fought development projects in that area.

Curry wrote to McKinlay in December seeking appointment to a citizens committee set up to oversee spending from the sales tax increase approved by voters in November.

McKinlay wrote Curry back, telling her she had already decided to select someone else.

Efforts to reach Curry Tuesday were unsuccessful.

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