Palm Beach County to pick team for possible lawsuit in opioid fight

2:18 p.m Sunday, March 11, 2018 Nation & World
Palm Beach County Mayor Melissa McKinlay during a meeting of the commission January 23, 2018. (Lannis Waters/The Palm Beach Post)

Three teams of law firms have emerged as the finalists to represent Palm Beach County if the county files suit against drug makers or sellers as part of its fight against the opioid epidemic.

As the Florida Legislature just passed a bill Friday that will allocate $53 million to the state’s opioid-crisis fight, Palm Beach County commissioners are expected to choose one of those legal teams when they meet on Tuesday.

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The firms have all agreed to work on a contingency basis, meaning they would keep a portion of whatever money they help the county win in a court battle. No taxpayer money would be used.

No final decision has been made to file suit, but commissioners have expressed support for a suit aimed at recovering some of the money the county has spent responding to the crisis.

Meanwhile, a national coalition of drug distributors said such lawsuits are a bad idea.

“The misuse and abuse of prescription opioids is a complex public health challenge that requires a collaborative and systemic response that engages all stakeholders,” John Parker, senior vice president of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, wrote in an email to The Palm Beach Post. “Given our role, the idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated. Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation.”

County Mayor Melissa McKinlay, whose former aide lost a daughter to the opioid epidemic, asked County Attorney Denise Nieman to get proposals from firms that would serve as outside counsel if the county filed suit. Nieman has said her office does not have the specific expertise or resources necessary to do battle with deep-pocketed and politically well-connected drug manufacturers or distributors.

More than a dozen firms initially expressed interest in representing the county if it decided to file suit.

Ultimately, the county’s request for proposals generated nine formal responses. From those, a three-person selection committee picked three teams of finalists:

- Motley Rice LLC of South Carolina, Gelber Schachter & Greenberg, P.A. of Miami and Colson Hicks Eidson of Coral Gables.

- The Ferraro Law Firm, P.A. of Miami, Napoli Shkolnik, PLLC of New York and Stull, Stull & Brody, also of New York.

- Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein LLP of California, Robbins, Geller, Rudman & Dowd LLP of California, Weiss, Handler & Cornwell, P.A. of Boca Raton and The Ryles Firm, LLC of West Palm Beach.

Delray Beach has hired Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, a national firm with an office in Boca Raton, to represent it in a lawsuit against at least eight pharmaceutical makers and distributors, including Purdue Pharma and McKesson Corp.

A report from Nieman’s office found that governments across the country have begun to file suit against drug manufacturers and distributors, blamed by some for not doing enough to limit the availability of their potent products.

More than 300 government entities across the country have filed suit, including Osceola County, Alachua County, Jacksonville and Delray Beach.

The Post has reported extensively on the opioid epidemic, which has devastated families and strained government budgets.

McKinlay has pushed for state and national efforts to combat the epidemic.

Gov. Rick Scott has declared the opioid crisis to be a public health epidemic and has sought additional state resources to combat it.

McKinlay was in Washington, D.C., last week providing fellow National Association of County members with an update on what Florida has done to address the opioid crisis.