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AG: Drug law affects opioid case, clergy probe to go longer

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks with reporters about her first year in office on Monday, Dec. 23, 2019, at her office in Lansing, Mich. Nessel says a unique state law is affecting her office's ability to sue over the opioid epidemic, and an investigation into clergy abuse will take longer than the two years she initially projected. (AP Photo/David Eggert)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — State Attorney General Dana Nessel said Monday that lawmakers should revisit Michigan’s unique law that shields drugmakers from product liability lawsuits, saying it “absolutely” has affected her strategy to seek damages for the painkiller addiction epidemic.

Her office last week sued four major opioid distributors under a law that is aimed at illegal drug dealers. The state has not filed suit against drug manufacturers over the crisis, though it is involved in multi-state settlement talks with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma.

“We’re the only state in the nation that faces that issue,” she said of Michigan’s protections for the pharmaceutical industry. It is considered to be the toughest law in the country, allowing legal damages only if plaintiffs prove a company withheld or misrepresented information about a drug that would cause the Food and Drug Administration to not give or to withdraw its approval.

“We’ve had to be a little creative in terms of the types of claims. That’s not to say that we don’t have very valid claims,” Nessel, a Democrat, told reporters in a wide-ranging discussion about her first year in office, which included an update on an investigation into clergy abuse and other initiatives such as combating elder abuse, payroll fraud, wrongful convictions and robocalls.

Asked if the 1995 immunity law had hampered her efforts or if it had influenced her legal approach to the opioid crisis, she said “yeah, absolutely” — adding that the law has hurt state residents.

“I can’t think of any good reason for the law to remain on the books the way it is written right now. My hope is that through the opioid epidemic, the Legislature will see how important is it that that law be either changed substantially or repealed altogether,” she said. Democratic-sponsored bills to repeal the law have died in the Republican-controlled Legislature for years.

Nessel said it was too early to say if the law will result in the state or other entities receiving less money but said she had been aggressive in settlement negotiations to obtain as much money as possible to abate the deadly overdose epidemic.

“I can’t think of anything more important actually than I’m doing here at this office,” she said.

Nessel also gave an update on the ongoing probe of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, saying it will take longer than the two years she estimated and citing millions of documents left to review. The investigation, which has resulted in seven people to be charged to date and two convictions, began under her predecessor in August 2018.

She said investigators have identified 270 priests who were abusive and 552 victims. Of 130 cases reviewed for potential charges, about 50 were closed due to the statute of limitations or because the priests are dead.

There are 45 current investigations, she said. Charges against two priests will be announced in January, she said.

“Quite honestly we need more funding if we’re going to get through it at a quicker pace,” Nessel said.

Also Monday, she said she will file long-anticipated suits over drinking water contamination from perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in January.

Nessel said her office had received more than 300 complaints since the launch of a payroll fraud enforcement unit in April. About 90% were successfully resolved by sending a letter or calling the business, she said, to ensure workers were paid or classified correctly.

Nessel cannot participate in her office’s ongoing criminal probe of Flint’s water crisis because she is working to resolve Flint residents’ class-action civil suits against the state. Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud is leading the investigation with Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy. They dropped charges against eight people in June, saying all the evidence was not pursued. The charges may be refiled later.