Louisiana Attorney General moved late Monday to take control of the Edwards’ administration lawsuit claiming pharmaceutical companies are responsible for an opioid crisis that has caused thousands of overdose deaths.

Landry wants to expand the lawsuit and formally hire Mike Moore, the former Mississippi Attorney General who shepherded a national action against tobacco manufacturers in 1990s that settled for billions of dollars.

Landry’s office asked the 19th Judicial District Court Monday night to allow the attorney general “to supersede” the Louisiana Department of Health in a lawsuit filed Sept. 27 against 17 pharmaceutical firms. The LDH lawsuit before Judge Wilson Fields, of Baton Rouge, claims drug manufacturers tried to maximize profits through an orchestrated campaign to flood Louisiana with opioid-based prescription painkillers, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone.

Landry was unaware of the LDH lawsuit until after Gov. John Bel Edwards’ lawyers had filed it. Since January 2016 when both took office, the Republican attorney general and the Democratic governor have squared off several times on issues from legal protections for transgender people to litigation budgets to who can hire what attorneys.

“I understand the fights between governors and AGs,” Moore said, recalling how as Democratic Attorney General in 1995, Republican Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice attempted to shut down his lawsuit against the tobacco companies.

“I’m hopeful we don’t get into a technical fight about who has the authority to bring a case,” Moore told The Advocate Monday. “It’s tough enough going after these big industries without having a sideshow in your own state.”

Moore helped Mississippi and Ohio put together litigation against the drug manufacturers and distributors. Landry asked Moore about six months ago to help Louisiana do the same.

Attorney generals in eight other states have filed lawsuits raising similar legal issues. Forty-two states are investigating opioid manufacturers and distributors.

The next step in Louisiana’s litigation – if Landry can wrest control of the lawsuit from Edwards – would be another motion incorporating the Louisiana Department of Health’s claims along with new allegations raised on behalf of other state agencies, said Chief Deputy Attorney General Bill Stiles III.

“LDH is a leg, no doubt,” Stiles said Monday, “but this is way more than an LDH lawsuit.”

The Health Department oversees Medicaid, the state/federal program that pays healthcare costs for roughly one of every four Louisiana residents. But state taxpayers also are on the hook for increased costs at public schools, children’s social services, the criminal justice system, and workforce productivity. Stiles estimates opioid-related costs to the state at about $160 million annually.

What happens next largely depends on the resolution of this latest dispute over which official – the governor or the attorney general – has ultimate authority to represent Louisiana in court.

Landry’s motion argues, “Both constitutionally and statutorily, the attorney general is the only official given such broad authority to advance all state interests through the use of litigation.”

Not so, Matthew Block, Edwards’ executive counsel, said Monday prior to receiving a copy of attorney general’s motion to supersede. Landry and his staff are misreading the state constitution, Block added.

Block said he and members of the AG’s office had been in discussions as late as Friday about the attorney general helping out with the administration’s lawsuit and bringing on Moore as an advisor.

Edwards told Landry and Moore at the Governor’s Mansion meeting two weeks ago that he wants to collaborate with the attorney general and prefers that Louisiana courts decide the case, Block said.

The state Department of Health hopes to hire Sher Garner Cahill Richter Klein & Hilbert LLC, a New Orleans law firm that handles complex litigation. Sher Garner represented companies that claimed damages from the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout as well as defended the Texas Brine Co. from litigation following the massive sinkhole at Bayou Corne. The Governor’s Office asked the Attorney General to approve the contract.

In the 1990s Moore was the first state attorney general to sue cigarette manufacturers for lying about nicotine addiction and requiring them to cover health care costs states had to pay on behalf of sick smokers. Other states joined the class action lawsuit that big tobacco companies settled for $246 billion paid out over 25 years. For Louisiana, the amount is generally well over $125 million a year, much of which goes to fund TOPS, the popular grant that pays a lot of the tuition and fees at state colleges and universities.

A similar method is being used in the legal actions being organized on the state level against the pharmaceutical companies. Moore is advising other states and represents Ohio’s attorney general, whose petition largely tracks the same legal logic, often the same wording, as the LDH lawsuit filed by the Edwards administration.

“You hate to call this a tobacco lawsuit because it’s not exactly the same. But it’s certainly the same magnitude,” Stiles said of the litigation against opioid manufacturers and distributors. 

Stiles and Landry have met with Moore several times since July. The AG’s office also has interviewed other law firms on what a lawsuit they would file would look like and how they would proceed.

Stiles said Moore wanted to ensure that any monies collected from the Louisiana lawsuit would be dedicated to law enforcement, rehabilitation and treatments, rather than being sent to the state general fund for spending wherever needed.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.