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Tampa law firms part of nationwide push to sue over opioid crisis

Hillsborough County has signed up as a plaintiff in a potential lawsuit seeking to recover damages for states and local governments from pharmaceutical companies as a result of the opioid crisis. The city of Tampa could follow suit this week. (Photo courtesy Fotolia/TNS/Getty Images)
Published Jan. 8, 2018

TAMPA — Two Tampa law firms are part of a nationwide effort to recover damages from pharmaceutical companies for states and local governments burdened by a rising tide of opioid overdoses.

Hillsborough County already is a potential plaintiff. Tampa could sign on this week.

The suit would be similar to the multi-state legal campaigns launched against Big Tobacco and BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. And the initiative is being led by former Mississippi attorney general Mike Moore, who in 1994 filed the first suit against cigarette makers over the public costs of treating disease caused by smoking.

"Mike is really the grandfather of this effort," said Tampa attorney Tom Young, who is part of a legal coalition that includes more than a dozen law firms from nine states and the District of Columbia. The other Tampa attorneys in the effort are father and son Steve and Truett Gardner of Gardner Brewer Martinez-Monfort.

Both Tampa firms are working with local governments involved in the litigation, while firms elsewhere are focused on manufacturers, distributors, appellate issues and coordination with state governments.

Overdoses cost the community a lot of money for law enforcement and emergency medical responses, Hillsborough County Commission chairwoman Sandra Murman said, so it would be good to recover some of those costs and put the money into treatment to address the problem first-hand.

"The increase in deaths have spiralled out of control," said Murman, who organized a local summit on the opioid crisis in September. In 2016, Florida medical examiners saw the number of deaths where opioids caused or were present at death rise 35 percent from the previous year.

REPORT: Opioid, cocaine deaths on the rise statewide and in the Tampa Bay area

Moore's consortium of law firms also has talked to Miami-Dade officials about joining the effort and hopes to bring in the state of Florida, which last year joined a multi-state effort to make civil investigative demands for information from manufacturers and distributors of opioid pain-killers.

"The states are going to drive these cases," Young said, with participation from larger counties and cities like Tampa and Hillsborough. And the group headed by Moore's firm is just one of five or six such litigation teams working on opioid abuse, he said, so other communities could get involved in similar litigation brought by different attorneys.

As proposed, Moore's team would investigate the feasibility of recovering any damages that Tampa may have suffered because of the opioid epidemic, and sue if damages can be demonstrated. The legal fee would be 25 percent of any money recovered for the city. The city also would reimburse the firms for out-of-pocket legal expenses from its settlements funds, but would not owe anything if it didn't receive any money.

That's in line with the $7 million that Tampa trial attorney Steve Yerrid was paid for winning Tampa a $27.4 million settlement in its litigation against BP over damage done to local tourism after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

Young said the purpose of the suit is not just to extract damages for state and local governments, but to generate sources of funding for initiatives to prevent the creation of new addicts and to equip first-responders with life-saving overdose reversal drugs such as Narcan.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Tampa officer revives overdose victim in department's first use of Narcan drug kit

Moreover, Young said, any solution needs to find a way to pay for long term in-patient treatment for opioid abuse and addiction.

"We have to treat the problem," he said. "That's going to be expensive. These drug companies and distribution companies that are complicit are going to have to come up with some significant money."

RELATED: As politicians pledge solutions to the opioid epidemic, advocates say the key will be money

In an open letter, Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, says "this is our fight, too," so it is designing its products so they cannot be snorted or injected, making them harder to abuse. It also says it supports limiting the length of initial opioid prescriptions, improving information-sharing between state prescription drug databases and increasing vigilance by doctors.

The Tampa City Council is scheduled to vote Thursday whether to join the litigation, which Mayor Bob Buckhorn said could help the city recuperate some its costs and provide "resources to help us combat this devastating epidemic."

"As deaths and near-death overdoses increase due to opioid addiction, cities across America are left to bear the costs," Buckhorn said. "Opioid addiction does not see race, gender or socio-economic status. It's plaguing millions across the country."

The Hillsborough County Commission voted to retain the outside attorneys in mid-November, but had been talking about the idea since Murman brought it up in August.

"We've got to do more at the local level," Murman said. "If we can get any dollars from these distributors or manufacturers, that will help us to have more treatment, it will help us to provide more beds. … We just don't have enough to provide services and that's why we have so many (addicts) end up in our jails and our emergency rooms."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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