JONESBORO — Craighead County and the City of Jonesboro are looking to expand their fight to stem the opioid epidemic and they want the pharmaceutical industry to pay for it.
But to get there, they have to prevail in a complicated lawsuit that’s pending in Crittenden County Circuit Court.
All 75 Arkansas counties, as well as 16 of the state’s largest cities are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed by 2nd Judicial Circuit Prosecutor Scott Ellington, against 60 manufacturers, distributors, stores and individuals. The case was originally filed in March 2018 and amended twice after that.
The lawsuit doesn’t spell out how much money they want to collect from the companies, but they cite the costs cities and counties have incurred increased emergency response costs, law enforcement costs and the cost of incarceration and court expenses involved with prosecuting drug-related crimes.
While no dollar figure has been specified, attorneys representing the cities and counties told Circuit Judge Pamela Honeycutt during a hearing Wednesday in Jonesboro their litigation is modeled after a lawsuit in Oklahoma that netted a $572 million judgment against most of the same defendants.
But lawyers defending the companies accused the cities and counties of “a complete stonewall” as the companies sought information (called discovery) on the expenses the various plaintiffs claim to have incurred as a result of deceptive or illegal practices.
In response, Honeycutt ordered each of the cities and counties to turn over the information the companies requested within 45 days. She also questioned why the case is being tried separately from a lawsuit Attorney General Leslie Rutledge filed against many of the same companies in Pulaski County Circuit Court.
Martin A. Kasten, representing Johnson & Johnson, said the cities and counties attorneys for months have resisted their obligations by filing “boiler-plate” objections.
“We have been told more than once that we can inspect documents at plaintiffs’ locations,” Kasten said, adding that response is unreasonable.
“We’re set for trial in March 2022,” Kasten said. “If we had to go to 92 locations – even if we sent teams out on the road – we couldn’t go to trial until at least 2025.”
Kasten said his team responded to requests for information electronically, “and plaintiffs can do the same.”
Sean Rolland, representing the cities and counties, said the requests the companies made to the local governments were premature, because the companies had not disclosed their defense to the claims. He also said the state’s financial calculations aren’t county-specific, but based on statewide databases and national sources.
As for the Pulaski County case, Rolland said Rutledge is seeking reimbursement for Medicaid expenses incurred as a result of opioid abuse and addiction. A trial in that case is set for March 2021.
What the cities and counties want from the drug companies is a pool of money to:
Prevent opioid use, injury and death through the purchase of naloxone kits for drug users, first responders, jailers, hospitals, schools, public buildings and other appropriate places. Naloxone is a substance that can reverse the effects of an overdose.
Treat, cure and prevent opioid misuse and addiction through the creation of mental health clinics, opioid abuse treatment clinics, programs to increase public awareness and programs to remove barriers to treatment and insurance coverage, among other things.
Reduce the supply of dangerous opioids through testing and information-sharing so that law enforcement can better understand the opioid epidemic; creating overdose response teams; hiring additional police, lab personnel and people to optimize the Arkansas Prescription Monitoring Program.
Reduce crime and involuntary commitments associated with opioid addiction through expanding drug and mental health courts, crisis stabilization units, treatment options in jails and prisons and training first responders regarding crisis intervention and diversion and prisoner re-entry programs.
In the Pulaski County case, Judge Morgan “Chip” Welch ordered Rutledge’s office in October 2019 to give “complete and specific” responses to the drug companies’ requests for discovery information. Following a hearing last month, the judge ordered the attorney general to amend the lawsuit claiming damages to state agencies that have not shared the information the companies had sought.
The attorney general has filed notice it will appeal Welch’s decision.