HARWICH — On a 3-2 vote, selectmen on Monday night decided not to participate in a lawsuit that alleges pharmaceutical companies are responsible for the opioid epidemic and caused additional expenses to municipalities across the nation.
Town Counsel John Giorgio made a presentation to selectmen two weeks ago explaining a consortium of lawyers are spearheading the national litigation seeking remuneration for costs relating to the epidemic. Local costs include public safety and EMS responses to overdoses, use of Narcan, ambulance runs and social service impacts, including costs relating to substance abuse and counseling.
The suit is being filed by Massachusetts Opioid Litigation Attorneys (MOLA), a consortium of local and national legal firms. Giorgio said his law firm, KP Law, has joined the litigation team. He told selectmen two weeks ago that several Cape communities have joined the litigation. Giorgio said MOLA will take 25 percent of what is recovered through the litigation.
There were only three selectmen present on the evening of Giorgio's presentation, so Board of Selectmen Chairman Michael MacAskill recommended a decision be put off until Selectmen Larry Ballantine and Jannell Brown had an opportunity to view video of the presentation.
On Monday night, Police Chief David Guillemette, while discussing zoning amendments for the retail sale of recreational marijuana (see separate story), informed selectmen the town had just experienced its third opioid-related death of the year the previous day. There was only one opioid death last year, he said.
Ballantine said Monday night he had read the information and had questions and concerns. He said he was struggling with what the suit was going to achieve by going after the drug companies. He said it should also target others from distributors of opioids down to the users.
Ballantine said he also had questions about how the lawyers are getting paid, noting that the 25 percent share for the attorneys is after “reasonable litigation expenses.” Ballantine said he could see another legal battle if there was a non-monetary settlement. He said he could see the result of this suit placing another burden on health costs with the potential for the awards from the suit to be “pushed down to the consumer.”
Brown said she could see that, noting the settlements in the tobacco industry lawsuits and the $11 to $12 cost today for a package of cigarettes. But she add the town has nothing to lose because it is currently getting nothing. “I'll trust the lawyers on this one,” Brown said.
Selectman Donald Howell said he has a $2.79 check on his kitchen table from a suit against Sylvania Lighting. This will make the lawyers rich, but not give the town more than $2.79, he said.
Ballantine questioned why, if there was unlawful conduct, the state doesn't take legal action. Selectman Julie Kavanagh said if the state files suit the money will go to the commonwealth and not the towns.
“It's an opportunity to let the drug companies know. We should take an action to send a message, “ Kavanagh said. “There were a lot of gains when they took on the tobacco industry. In some way, shape or form something may come out of it that makes the pharmaceutical companies more responsible.”
MacAskill said putting the paperwork together on behalf of the town will tax the staff. Town counsel commented two weeks ago about going after the deep pockets in hopes of a settlement. “It's a way for attorneys to get more wealthy and I can't see it,” MacAskill said.
Howell said the drug companies deluded doctors into believing the opioids were less addictive and totally safe. “But it's hard to believe they're going to come out of this with a moral or monetary victory,” Howell said of MOLA. He put forward a motion to have the town not participate in the lawsuit. MacAskill, Ballantine and Howell supported the motion, while Kavanagh and Brown voted against it.