Palm Beach County picks lawyers for possible opioids lawsuit

Palm Beach County commissioners have selected a team of lawyers to represent the county if it files suit against drug makers and distributors to recoup costs spent battling the opioid epidemic.

At the end of an all-day meeting Tuesday, the commissioners selected The Ferraro Law Firm of Miami and a pair of New York City firms, Napoli Skolnik and Stull, Stull and Brody. That team was the only one of three finalists who promised to fully indemnify the county against costs.

Lawyers for the firms said they are ready to go to work and, after consulting with the county, will look to file suit in state court instead of joining any of the ongoing lawsuits across the country against drug makers or distributors, blamed by some governments for not doing enough to limit the availability and potency of drugs being abused in the epidemic.

“We want to get a case filed,” James Ferraro said after his team of firms was selected by commissioners. “Palm Beach (County) has gotten ravaged. Literally every day, damages are going out the door.”

Ferraro did not say when a case would be filed, and the county has not determined who, specifically, would be the subject of a suit.

Delray Beach filed suit against a dozen drug companies in December, and Broward County filed suit on Monday against a host of defendants, including Wal-Mart, CVS and a variety of drug companies.

Geller, Rudman and Dowd, a national law firm with an office in Boca Raton, is assisting Delray Beach and Broward County in their lawsuits. The firm was part of a four-firm team that bid unsuccessfully to assist Palm Beach County in its expected legal fight against drug makers and distributors.

Motley Rice of South Carolina, Gelber Schachter and Greenberg of Miami and Colson Hicks Eidson of Coral Gables was the other team of firms that bid unsuccessfully to be a part of Palm Beach County’s efforts.

The issue of indemnification, written into the county’s request for proposals from interested law firms as a means of making sure taxpayers don’t end up paying for expensive legal fees, was the source of a heated discussion among commissioners. It was also a point of disagreement the two unsuccessful teams had with County Attorney Denise Nieman.

Nieman, following direction from commissioners, crafted a request for proposal that required firms to agree to take the case on a contingency basis and to fully indemnify the county. That means the firm would only get paid if its suit on behalf of the county was successful and that the firm would pay all related costs, including the legal fees of drug makers and distributors if a judge — unhappy with the county’s decision to file suit — orders the county to pay those fees.

Two of the teams said Florida law does not allow them to offer the type of complete indemnification the county sought.

Commissioner Dave Kerner, one of three attorneys on the commission, agreed with their interpretation of the law, saying indemnification is limited to make sure the interests of a law firm aren’t at odds with those of its client.

Before leaving the meeting to catch a flight, Nieman had disagreed, urging commissioners not to budge from the request for proposal they directed her to write.

“It’s my recommendation that you stay with what we recommended — 100 percent indemnification,” she said.

Nieman had noted that two of the firms raised concerns about fully indemnifying the county only after they beat out other firms and were named finalists.

County Mayor Melissa McKinlay, who made the initial suggestion to consider legal action as a means of recouping county costs in the opioid epidemic, picked up on that theme, criticizing two of the teams.

Those teams, McKinlay said, “failed to raise that, and I believe that was in an effort to get to this point. This issue could have been raised when the contract was put forward.”

Commissioner Hal Valeche, who left the meeting before the final vote was held, had pushed for full indemnification.

When he learned that two of the three teams had expressed concerns about that, he wondered aloud why the county would move forward with firms that hadn’t agreed to the full indemnification.

In the end, commissioners voted 4-2 to pick the team of Ferraro, Napoli Skolnik and Stull, Stull and Brody.

Two of the three attorneys on the commission — Kerner and Commissioner Mack Bernard — voted against the motion to select the Ferraro, Napoli Skolnik, Stull, Stull and Brody team.

Bernard wanted to wait for an advisory opinion on indemnification one of the firms sought from the Florida Bar Association.

The third attorney on the commission, Steven Abrams, had sought to delay a final choice but ultimately voted to move forward.

“I’ve always followed the advice of our attorney,” Abrams said.

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