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Grand Forks joins lawsuit against opioid companies: Stenehjem advised against community action

Lt. Brett Johnson shows examples of opioids that have been found in Grand Forks, along with drug combatants that EMS has on hand when dealing with dangerous drugs. Joshua Komer / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS — The city of Grand Forks decided on Monday, Dec. 3, to join more than 1,000 other parties across the country in multidistrict litigation against opioid distributors and manufacturers for damages to their communities.

City Council members voted unanimously to work with Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, one of two law firms the city and Grand Forks County heard from this year.

Paul Geller, head of the Robbins Geller team, said in October the multidistrict litigation includes many cities, counties, at least one state, health and welfare funds and Native American tribes. Across North Dakota, several entities have considered and either accepted or declined joining the suit. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who filed a lawsuit against manufacturer Purdue Pharmaceutical on behalf of the state in May, advised North Dakota communities against taking part in other litigation with the idea other lawsuits will deter the state's own effort to recover damages.

“The opioid epidemic is kind of unique in that it’s affecting so much of the country at once,” said Michael Dulitz, who coordinates the Opiate Response Project for Grand Forks Public Health. “It’s not just small pockets of concern, you know, there’s overdoses and overdose deaths happening throughout the country.”

The effort is currently in the hands of a district judge in Ohio, who will consider the case against 10 opioid companies and then determine if they are responsible for damages brought before the court.

The litigation is holding seven manufacturers and three distributors accountable, according to Geller, those being Purdue, Endo, Teva, Allergan, Mallinckrodt, Johnson & Johnson, AmeriSource, Cardinal Health and McKesson.

Now that Grand Forks has agreed to join Robbins Geller, City Administrator Todd Feland said it will enter a process of discovery to determine what damages it can recover. During a presentation in October, representatives from Robbins Geller suggested those may include anything the city spent on increased law enforcement, judicial efforts, prison expenditures, substance abuse treatment and emergency and medical care services.

“We believe the judge shares our concerns about the gravity of this epidemic, and that finding a pathway toward abatement is paramount,” Geller said in October. Representatives from his firm did not respond to request for comment on Tuesday.

“Pursuing (litigation) will give an opportunity to examine the entire impact that the opioid epidemic has had on the community,” Dulitz said. The work he does is made possible through federal funding administered by the state Department of Human Services.

“We expect those funds to continue for a few more years, but long-term, there’ll still be a need for different treatment infrastructure and stuff like that,” Dulitz said. “So this could be an opportunity to help on that in the future. Or however the city chooses to allocate those funds, if it is a successful claim.”

Grand Forks Public Health has received $340,000 from the state for increasing access to addiction treatment and improving the local response to overdosing. Dulitz said litigation efforts shouldn’t directly change anything he or his department are doing.

“Because of the way we’re funded, our strategy is focusing on keeping people healthy until they can get into treatment, and keeping that treatment infrastructure going and getting increased treatment access and capacity,” he said.

Council members selected Robbins Geller during a closed executive session Monday night. City Administrator Todd Feland said both firms the council considered, including Grand Forks County’s firm of choice, Motley Rice, were close to equal.

“I think the tipping point was the pay arrangement,” he said. Robbins Geller asked the city for 18 percent of whatever it wins, according to Feland, while Motley Rice proposed a method where the more the city receives, the smaller a percentage it would have to pay.

Robbins Geller promised the city all other costs will be absorbed, including out-of-pocket expenses during discovery.

“There will certainly be some work required, but we have gotten pretty good at working with city or county staff in an efficient a collaborative manner,” Geller said in October. “We are respectful of the fact that employees are busy and have jobs to do, but that has to be balanced with the need to engage appropriately in the discovery process.”