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Florida cities sued opioid makers. Now lawmakers might go after the cities.

Former Attorney General Bill McCollum said “it’s a big mess.” Cities and counties disagree.
Former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum told a House committee that the state should change state law to limit cities and counties from filing lawsuits against corporations on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.
Former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum told a House committee that the state should change state law to limit cities and counties from filing lawsuits against corporations on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. [ LAWRENCE MOWER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 23, 2020
Updated Jan. 23, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers are considering cracking down on cities and counties that file lawsuits against big corporations, a response to those communities that are suing drug makers and manufacturers over the opioid epidemic.

Former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum urged lawmakers during a Wednesday House committee meeting to discourage cities and counties from filing more lawsuits.

“Going forward we’re going to have a big mess. We already have a big mess,” McCollum said, referencing the amount of litigation. “It’s a problem I recommend you address now.”

The litigation, usually farmed out to trial lawyers, seeks to recoup the costs of an epidemic that has killed more than 10,000 Floridians and required cities and counties to spend millions responding to overdoses and buying life-saving drugs.

Tampa, Clearwater and Pinellas, Hillsborough and Hernando counties have all filed suits, joining thousands of communities across the country. The Seminole Tribe of Florida sued last year. Even the Miami-Dade School District filed suit, seeking to recover costs that included training school nurses on how to properly treat drug overdoses.

Suing on behalf of residents, however, is a chief function of office of Florida’s Attorney General office. Although it has filed litigation against the drug companies, it’s only done so after cities and counties already had.

McCollum warned that if nothing is done to limit litigation, cities and counties would continue to team up to sue big companies. McCollum afterward mentioned the Palm Beach County School District joining school districts across the nation in suing vaping manufacturer JUUL.

Attorney Trevor Cox, who used to work for the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, said communities are starting to sue because they think attorneys general aren’t acting. He said local officials see it as “political opportunism” or because cities face shrinking budgets.

“Municipalities see it as an opportunity to gain a financial recovery,” Cox said.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman rejected McCollum’s premise, alluding to his laissez-faire tenure as attorney general from 2007 to 2011 when he was better known for chasing cyber-predators than prosecuting major corporations for crimes like mortgage fraud.

“This is all just the latest in a long series of attacks on municipalities,"Kriseman said. "The people of Florida cannot rely on their state government to look out for them. They couldn’t rely on Bill McCollum and they’ll never be able to rely on attorney generals who care more about the powerful than the people.”

Cox’s comments also drew a rebuke from Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, whose county was “ground zero” for the state’s epidemic.

“We’re talking about removing dead bodies from our libraries, from our streets, from our parks,” McKinlay said. "This is absolutely a local response, and any type of political opportunism is lost on me."

McKinlay said the county has spent at least $43 million over the last 10 years on battling the epidemic, which at its peak she said killed 626 people in the county. And those dollars are a conservative estimate that do not include the cost to the sheriff’s office, she said. It also doesn’t include the costs to each city in the county for similar services.

McKinlay said local communities need to have the ability to recoup those costs, which they’re not guaranteed to receive from the case litigated by the attorney general’s office. When states, including Florida, sued big tobacco in the 1990s, cities and counties were largely left out of the billions that private attorneys won on behalf of attorneys general.

McCollum said Wednesday he wrote two different potential bills to curb local litigation. One would cap how much lawyers hired by cities and counties can make. The other strips cities and counties of the ability to sue on “matters of statewide concern.”

Florida’s Attorney General’s Office already has a cap on how much private lawyers hired by its office can make. In 2010, McCollum, as attorney general, pushed for a law capping attorney’s fees at $50 million.

The vast majority of cases don’t come close to meriting that much in attorney’s fees. But some litigation, like Florida’s case against Big Tobacco in the 1990s, does.

Florida hired a “dream team” of lawyers who won $11.7 billion for the state, and the dozen law firms, who spent years litigating the case, took home $3.4 billion. It was after that round of litigation that the Republican National Committee helped form the Republican Attorneys General Association to blunt class action lawsuits.

The opioid lawsuits are far more complicated than the Big Tobacco lawsuits, said James Ferrero, one of the lawyers representing Palm Beach County in its lawsuit. More than a dozen drug makers, manufacturers and pharmacies have been sued, and there are thousands of plaintiffs.

“This is the most complicated piece of litigation in history,” Ferrero said. “There’s been nothing ever seen like this before.”

Yet when former Attorney General Pam Bondi asked for lawyers to take on the nation’s largest drug makers and distributors, multiple top law firms cited the contingency fee caps as a reason for not taking the case.

McCollum has since gone around the country on behalf of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a pro-business lobbying group whose board of directors include representatives from some of the nation’s largest companies.

McCollum said Wednesday, however, that he was in Tallahassee personally and not on behalf of the Institute for Legal Reform.

After the committee meeting, chairman Bob Rommel, R-Naples, said his committee would consider introducing a bill aimed at local lawsuits.

“There’s some compelling evidence, especially in these large complex cases, that we don’t want 400 lawsuits in the State of Florida if it’s of statewide interest,” he said.

A different Florida House committee advanced a bill on Thursday that would cap attorney’s fees at $20 million. Nearly all Republicans on the committee voted for it, with Democrats opposing it.