Overcoming Opioids Cures Act

This Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison)

Patrick Sison

The Orleans Parish sheriff is preparing to file a lawsuit against drug makers as more government agencies across Louisiana join a growing national effort to win big damages over the costs that taxpayers have allegedly incurred as a result of the opioid crisis.

James M. Williams, an attorney with Chehardy Sherman Williams in Metairie, said he expected to file the lawsuit this month on behalf of Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman.

Meanwhile, a major Metairie-based treatment center, Addiction Recovery Resources, filed suit on Tuesday in Orleans Parish Civil District Court.

The suit by the treatment center, which also has an office in New Orleans, “specifically targets the distributors of prescription opioids in Louisiana for knowingly exploiting chronic pain patients and their doctors with deceptive marketing schemes about the long-term use of opioid medications,” said Lawrence Centola, an attorney with Martzell, Bickford and Centola.

Not previously reported, Bossier Parish was the first parish to file suit in Louisiana, on Dec. 29.

More are likely to follow.

“Every parish is going through the deliberative process of attorney selection and comparing information on totaling up the damages,” said Patrick Jackson, the parish attorney in Bossier Parish.

Already, the state Department of Health, at the direction of Gov. John Bel Edwards, East Baton Rouge Parish, the city of Covington and 13 sheriffs all have filed suit alleging that opioid manufacturers and distributors deliberately took actions that caused widespread addiction.

“They duped the doctors and pharmacists by telling them to prescribe for chronic pain,” said John Young, the former Jefferson Parish president who is among the attorneys hired by Bossier Parish. “It’s supposed to be for acute pain. It all traces back to the manufacturers and distributors who through fraudulent marketing campaigns promoted the use of this drug as safe and non-addictive.”

Williams is also part of the Bossier Parish lawsuit, which was filed in federal court. The other law firms are Roderick Alvendia of Alvendia Kelly & Demarest in New Orleans; Anthony Irpino of Irpino, Avin & Hawkins in New Orleans; Randall Smith and Stephen Gelé of Smith & Fawer in New Orleans; and Michael Stag, Ashley Liuzza and Matthew Rogenes of Smith Stag in New Orleans.

These lawyers are seeking more clients. They pitched the merits of the lawsuits to members of the Police Jury Association, which represents parish government leaders, at their meeting in New Orleans last month.

The Lafayette-based law firm of Laborde Earles is representing the 13 sheriffs and will be filing more lawsuits on behalf of parish governments and at least one Indian tribe in Louisiana, said David Laborde.

Shreveport has also filed a lawsuit, said the city attorney, William Bradford. A Shreveport Times article said a New York-based law firm is representing the city along with attorney Kenneth M. Carter, who was one of New Orleans’ assessors and a 1994 candidate to be mayor.

In most cases, lawyers on opioid cases are working on a contingency basis of 20 percent to 25 percent, meaning they cover upfront costs and stand to win nothing if they lose but would likely earn a windfall if they prevail in court or through a settlement.

“Our team is not motivated as much by the money,” said Young, in a comment that critics of the lawsuits will doubtless find hard to believe.

"We are in it to enjoin them from these fraudulent marketing tactics and to help create a cessation fund to treat people who have become addicted to opioids," he added. 

Representatives of opioid manufacturers and distributors say they are blameless, arguing that doctors and their patients decided on what pills to take.

Some have likened the opioid lawsuits to those filed against tobacco companies in the 1990s, which generated more than $200 billion for governments nationwide and enriched a small army of trial attorneys – while proving that the companies had engaged in a deliberate campaign to addict smokers. Smoking rates have steadily declined since then.

The opioid cases filed in Louisiana are part of a slew of lawsuits nationwide that are being consolidated before a federal judge in Cleveland.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.