The county will begin a multistep legal process to potentially file a lawsuit against manufacturers of opioids to recover the costs to taxpayers related to the drug, including the expenses of law enforcement, incarceration and addiction treatment.
Galveston County Commissioners Court on Monday voted unanimously to authorize County Judge Mark Henry to request the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts review and approve the county to contract with law firms on a contingent fee basis.
The state must approve contingent fee contracts, said Robert Boemer, an attorney for the county. Commissioners court would still need to vote on a contingent fee contract with the law firms, which would allow the firms to sue on behalf of the county and collect a fee from any money awarded, he said. The suit would not cost the county, he said.
Several law firms, including Watts Guerra LLP and The Gallagher Firm LLP, have explored an agreement between the county and the firms to recover costs related to opioid abuse in Galveston County.
Two representatives met with Henry and county legal recently to discuss a potential lawsuit against manufacturers of opioids.
If the county sued, it would be one of several municipalities nationwide who have lodged challenges against opioid manufacturers with the hope of stemming an epidemic. Harris and Bexar counties in Texas have both moved toward filing similar lawsuits, Henry said.
The small East Texas county of Upshur filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court last month against prescription painkiller manufacturers and distributors.
In September, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced the state had joined a coalition of 40 others in serving subpoenas against eight companies that manufacture or distribute prescription painkillers to collect information. The intent is to evaluate whether the companies engaged in unlawful practices, he said in a statement.
The county’s exploration of a lawsuit stems from allegations that certain opioid manufacturers have engaged in “negligent and reckless promotion of opioid painkillers for inappropriate uses,” the court order approved by Galveston County commissioners said.
The county did not yet have a list of potential manufacturers that may be the target of a lawsuit, Boemer said. Representatives from Watts Guerra LLP and The Gallagher Firm LLP did not respond to requests for comment.
While the county doesn’t know the exact cost of opioid abuse in Galveston County, the county’s criminal justice system sees its effects nearly daily, District Attorney Jack Roady said.
The justice system frequently sees addiction-related cases due to opioids such as Oxycodone and cases of children entering into the state’s child services system because parents are addicted to prescription opioids and no longer caring for their children, Roady said.
The expenses also show up in providing emergency medical services for people who have overdosed or nearly overdosed on prescription pills or the street drugs many opioid addicts turn to when they don’t have access to pills, he said.
That’s just the economic toll.
“We’re fighting those battles in every part of the county,” Roady said. “The idea is to recover taxpayer funds that the county has had to extend over the years in all those areas, including caring for families, legal and medical costs.”
The law firms did not respond this week. But representatives discussed suing major pharamecutical companies, Henry said. The companies have not yet been named, he said.
“The only targets here really are the pharmaceutical companies,” Henry said. “These businesses are not in Galveston County, no businesses here would be sued.”
In recent memory, the county has filed just one other lawsuit on a contingent fee basis, Boemer said. That lawsuit was against the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association over damages from Hurricane Ike in 2008, he said.