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Escanaba joins opioid lawsuit

ESCANABA — The Escanaba City Council has decided to join a nation-wide mass lawsuit against manufacturers of opioids in an effort to curb marketing of these products, which are contributing to the local drug epidemic.

Escanaba’s decision to join more than 100 municipalities across the country in the legal suit was made during a special meeting Friday morning, pending the city attorney’s review of the lawsuit agreement, which took place later Friday followed by council’s signing of the engagement letter.

Prior to voting on the matter Friday, council discussed the lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, which was initially brought before the board by City Attorney Ralph “B.K.” Peterson during council’s regular meeting on Dec. 7 when council requested more information about the legal action.

Opioids are a class of drugs, which include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine and morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

These drugs, along with others, are prevalent in Delta County and contribute directly and indirectly to 80 percent of the criminal behavior taking place in Escanaba, according to Public Safety Director Rob LaMarche, who is in favor of the fight against drugs.

“Any proactive steps to curb the opioid epidemic, I support,” LaMarche commented following Friday’s meeting.

Prior to council’s decision on Friday, Timothy Smith of Smith & Johnson Attorneys of Traverse City, updated council on the lawsuit, explaining the first municipality to jump on board was Suffolk County, N.J., followed by more than 100 municipalities to date, including Delta County.

Smith explained the attorneys involved in the case are paying the legal costs up front. Any monetary awards resulting from the lawsuit will be used to reimburse these costs with 30 percent of the remaining award monies going to the lawyers and the remaining 70 percent going to the participating municipalities.

“I don’t see a (financial) risk to the municipal clients we have,” said Smith. “We (the attorneys) only get paid if we’re successful in our case.”

For judicial economy of the lawsuits, all the individual legal complaints will be placed under the jurisdiction of one federal judge and one federal court in the Northern District of Ohio, Smith explained, noting later the litigation could last two to five years.

Smith told council members he has been looking at suing “pill mills” for many years and was waiting for Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette to engage in a lawsuit. In September, Schuette said he would not pursue a lawsuit, but he will join 40 other attorney generals in investigating activities of opioid manufacturers, said Smith.

The attorney said federal fining of opioid manufacturers has not been working because companies apologize and pay the multi-million-dollar fines and are back in business. Distribution centers must be held accountable to strict rules of manufacturing and operation, he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Ron Beauchamp, who thinks the lawsuit is going after the wrong party, questioned Smith on why the legal action is not targeting doctors who are prescribing the pills, pharmacies which are selling the prescriptions, and insurance companies which are paying for the pills.

Beauchamp added the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) should be doing a better job of enforcing the rules for drug companies.

Council member Michael Sattem agreed the lawsuit is going after the wrong people.

The attorney said the FDA is doing its job by approving uses for opioids. Regarding the other parties, Smith said that pill manufacturers’ sales teams are selling the pills to health care providers while giving them “bad information” on the drugs which the sellers know are dangerously addictive.

The drug companies know opioids are addictive, but their sales people are lying that these prescriptions are not addictive, said Smith, adding these sales tactics represent criminal behavior.

“This litigation is about criminal behavior they’ve already plead (guilty) to,” said Smith, noting the marketing fraud is similar to the lawsuits which targeted tobacco manufacturers who knew cigarettes caused cancer.

Council member Ralph Blasier agreed the lawsuit against the drug manufactures is the right path for the city to follow because it is taking action to fight the local drug problem.

Smith said the lawsuit is a risk but he may be able to slow down drugs and he may be able to get funding for the city to pay for the costs which drugs are creating in the community.

Council member Peggy Schumann described the lawsuit as “a great step,” adding she hopes the legal action is going after the right party — the drug manufacturers which are being unethical by giving doctors condensed information on the opioids.

Schumann made the motion for council to join the mass lawsuit. Blasier seconded the motion. During further discussion, Beauchamp asked for a review of the legal agreement, which council would be signing to join the lawsuit. Council’s 4-1 vote agreeing to engage in the legal action was passed pending the city attorney’s review of the agreement which took place later Friday.

Beauchamp voted against the motion. Schumann, Blasier, Sattem and Mayor Marc Tall voted in favor of the motion.

During Smith’s presentation Friday, Beauchamp and Sattem expressed concerns that Blasier should be excluded from discussing and voting on the issue because it is a conflict of interest for him because he is a doctor who prescribes painkillers to patients.

Blasier was entitled to participate in the agenda item following a vote by council that failed 3-2 to pass Beauchamp’s motion to exclude Blasier.

During council’s Dec. 7 discussion on the lawsuit, Peterson explained the attorneys involved in the legal action are paying up front for court costs but added that if no money is awarded from the lawsuit, the communities participating in the lawsuit might have to pay the court costs.

At that time, Peterson had recommended council join the lawsuit before a Dec. 19 deadline on this initial effort, adding there would likely be another opportunity for the city to sign onto another lawsuit later.

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