Opioid crisis: Palm Beach County looking for firms for Big Pharma suit

Want to represent Palm Beach County if it goes toe to toe with Big Pharma?

Law firms could soon have that opportunity. Commissioners voted 7-0 Tuesday to have County Attorney Denise Nieman’s office begin crafting a request for proposals from firms that would represent the county should it decide to file suit against drug companies, manufacturers or pharmacies as part of its effort to combat the opioid crisis.

Nieman said she expects to have a request for proposal ready in early January with three finalists ready for commissioners to choose from in mid-February.

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At the suggestion of County Mayor Melissa McKinlay, whose former aide lost a daughter to the opioid epidemic, Nieman’s office compiled a report on the legal landscape of the epidemic. That landscape has been changing constantly.

Nieman’s report found that 14 firms had expressed an interest in representing the county and that about 80 lawsuits had been filed against drug companies, manufacturers or pharmacies across the country.

By Tuesday, those numbers had changed, Assistant County Attorney Kim Pham told commissioners. About 150 cases have been filed across the country, and the number of law firms interested in representing Palm Beach County had grown to 16.

Pham also told commissioners that Osceola County had recently become the first county in Florida to file suit. The city of Delray Beach has hired a law firm and announced its decision to sue, but it has not yet filed suit, Pham said.

Because of the number of firms that have already expressed an interest in representing Palm Beach County if it decides to sue, Nieman urged commissioners to have a competitive selection process.

Based on comments from several commissioners, one important element of that process is the degree to which a prospective firm would protect the county financially.

Nieman’s report states that “based on the firms’ informal representations, litigation would be pursued without county funding. Attorneys’ fees would be paid on a contingency basis, with costs fronted by the firm, only to be reimbursed by the county if there is an acceptable recovery.”

Beyond attorney’s fees, there is another area of financial risk — the prospect of a court ordering that a defendant’s legal and other associated fees be paid if the county’s suit is unsuccessful.

Commissioners asked Pham if law firms expressing an interest in representing the county had said how much, if any, of those costs it would be willing to cover.

“No one has given me a definitive response,” Pham said. “It’s something they said is negotiable.”

Most commissioners said they are ready to move forward with a suit.

“Let’s be a zealous advocate for our community and not sit back on this one,” Commissioner Dave Kerner said.

Added McKinlay: “The pharmaceutical industry has some responsibility helping us with a crisis they helped create.”

Alex Larson, a Loxahatchee resident who has frequently sparred with commissioners, said she doesn’t want to see the county take actions that could make it more difficult for people in pain to receive the medication they need.

She noted her husband’s recent need for medical treatment and pain medication, which she said should not be blamed for the opioid crisis.

“The doctors are not at fault,” Larson said. “The pharmaceutical companies are not at fault. We have free will.”

Florida and other states had high-profile, big-dollar successes in lawsuits against the tobacco industry, but Commissioner Hal Valeche cautioned those interested in filing suit against Big Pharma not to expect the same results.

“I don’t want people’s expectations of a windfall to get too inflated,” Valeche said.

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