The Jefferson Parish Council is considering a proposal to sue drug companies over the public costs associated with the opioid epidemic.
A resolution to hire a team of lawyers to pursue the case was deferred at Wednesday's council meeting, but several members said a lawsuit may be a good way for the parish to recoup some of the costs associated with treating people suffering from opioid addiction.
If it does sue, Jefferson Parish would join dozens of states, counties and cities across the country that are turning to the courts as a way to help fund the fight against powerful, addictive painkillers.
The resolution would be just a first step. If it passes, parish officials and the attorneys involved would begin negotiating a contract.
The lawyers were selected by a council committee, which had issued a request for qualifications from interested firms. They include former council candidate and Metairie attorney Michael Thomas; McCrainie, Sistrunk, Anzelmo, Hardy, McDaniel and Welch, of New Orleans; the Laborde Earles Law Firm, of Lafayette; the Green Law Firm, of Marrero; and Berrigan Litchfield, of New Orleans.
The resolution was deferred at the request of incoming Councilman Dominick Impastato, himself a civil trial attorney, who was elected earlier this month. Impastato won't take his seat until the Nov. 15 meeting, and he asked the council to give him time to study the issue.
"I want to make sure we are making the right decision," he said. "Is this type of litigation appropriate for the parish?"
Impastato said such a lawsuit could result in a large settlement and that he had questions about how the lawyers would be selected and what the fee schedule would be.
Louisiana joined a growing list of state and local governments Wednesday by taking legal act…
Plaintiffs in the nearly three dozen such suits that have been filed across the country — including by the state of Louisiana and a handful of sheriffs in the state — have been using a well-worn playbook for such lawsuits, one developed two decades ago in a series of lawsuits against tobacco companies. Those cases eventually resulted in a $200 billion settlement.
But there are key differences with opioid lawsuits, said John Church, an LSU law professor who specializes in tort law.
"Opioids are so heavily regulated to begin with," he said. "That leaves a very small window for plaintiffs to establish that there's any fault" on the part of the drug companies.
And so far, there doesn't seem to be a unified coalition in support of the various ongoing cases, something that existed in the case of the tobacco settlement and helped bring the companies involved to the table, Church said.
On the other hand, he said, momentum could build if plaintiffs start picking up court victories. Illinois reached a $4.5 million settlement with drug makers this summer.
"The problem is getting bigger and bigger and bigger," said Jefferson Parish Coroner Dr. Gerry Cvitanovich. "It's a drain on resources at every level."
Across the country, per capita deaths involving opioids have more than tripled since 2000, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Even with the deferral, some members of the council signaled that they would support going forward with a suit.
Councilman Paul Johnston said the potential benefits from winning or settling such a suit are key. "It could bring in some funds for the parish, and the municipalities too," he said.
Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng agreed.
"If we don't file a suit and try to disrupt that supply chain in some kind of way, this is going to continue to spin out of control," she said. "I think we need to get on board with this litigation."