Benzie County joins opioid litigation

BENZIE COUNTY — The Benzie County Board of Commissioners voted recently to secure legal representation in order to take part in national litigation being waged against manufacturers and distributors of opioids.

The county approved at its Jan. 9 meeting the retention of the law firms of Weitz & Luxenberg, the Sam Bernstein Law Firm, and Smith and Johnson as special counsel to represent the interest of Benzie County in any litigation which includes other similarly situated plaintiffs brought to recover funds it has been obligated to spend to deal with the opioid epidemic.

Benzie joins a number of other counties and cities, including Detroit, Genesee, Grand Traverse County, Macomb County, Mason County, Saginaw, Delta County, Chippewa County, Lansing and Escanaba in bringing lawsuits against manufacturers and distributors of opioids, as well as any other culpable parties that may be responsible for the opioid epidemic.

The lawsuit is not a class-action lawsuit, but multi-district litigation, meaning every county has its own lawsuit, according to a letter to the board of commissioners written by a representative from Smith and Johnson.

County Administrator Mitch Deisch said participating in the litigation won’t cost the county.

“Typically, the law firm or firms will advance the costs on behalf of the client,” Deisch said. “The expectation is that the reimbursement for expenses will come when damages are awarded and collected.”

The idea behind the lawsuit is that paramedical companies and other entities are responsible for the opioid epidemic, which has cost cities, villages and counties.

“The premise is opioids and the mass distribution of them has had negative consequences on municipalities and government, as well as society,” Deisch said. “From a governmental standpoint, we’re continuously dealing with this topic. There is an additional cost for area law enforcement and emergency medical services, as well as jails, the court systems and community mental health due to the opioid epidemic.”

Deisch likened the litigation to past legal action involving states and the tobacco industry.

“Potentially, if it is successful, Benzie County could benefit financially from any future lawsuits or settlements, but that is years down the road,” he said. “My goal is to help offset future costs associated with the county due to opioid epidemic.”

Commissioner Art Jeannot, who voted to retain legal counsel, said he had doubts about joining in on the litigation at first, but believes it is for a good cause.

“I’m cautious about class-action lawsuits and similar litigation, and, in general we’ve become way too litigious as a society,” Jeannot said. “However, after thoroughly vetting the reasons behind these lawsuits, and the reasons why we should join as a county, that’s when I became supportive of it.”

Commissioner Coury Carland said he hopes the lawsuit will help the county provide services for those suffering from opioid dependence in the future.

“If in five or six years in the future there is money available through a settlement, we hope to get people some treatment,” Carland said.

Gary Sauer, chair of the board of commissioners, was the only commissioner to vote against joining in on the litigation.

“The reason I voted no is because I’m not sure that it is going to benefit the county much,” Sauer said. “It reminds me of the cigarette tax lawsuits. Things need to be taken care of, but suing the companies may not be the right idea. It could be a good or bad thing, if it restricts the usage and doctors don’t prescribe opioids as much. There is too much I don’t know. It is an opportunity to recoup some money dealing with jails and ambulance calls, and we recently had another drug-related death, but I don’t know where (the lawsuit) is going to go. Hopefully it will accomplish what rest of the commissioners believe it will.”

 

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