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Hall among 12 Georgia counties suing opioid manufacturers

At least 12 Georgia counties are now suing opioid manufacturers and distributors in federal court over damage caused by the opioid epidemic.

Hall County and five others, Cook, Madison, Irwin and Walton, have joined Athens-Clarke, Candler, Oconee, Crisp, Jeff Davis, Sumter and Oglethorpe counties in filing lawsuits in the federal multidistrict process established in U.S. District Judge Dan Polster’s Ohio court.

Learn more about the opioid epidemic in The Times' podcast Back to Life.

Athens law firm Blasingame, Burch, Garrard & Ashley is representing the counties, and Gainesville law firm Hasty Pope is assisting with the lawsuit and also representing Hall County.

Jon Pope is an attorney with Gainesville law firm Hasty Pope, which is assisting with a Hall County lawsuit against opioid manufacturers.
“When you’re talking about the epidemic in Georgia, Northeast Georgia is one of the most affected areas,” Jon Pope, of Hasty Pope, said on Wednesday, March 14. “Hall County through 2016 had prescription rate of … 94.5 prescriptions of opioids for every 100 people in Hall County. In Habersham County, by contrast, it was 122 (prescriptions).”

In addition to Candler County in Southeast Georgia, the Candler County Hospital Authority has signed onto the suit, according to the Athens firm.

“We’ve made presentations to dozens of local governments across Georgia and anticipate presenting to many more,” BBGA partner Jim Matthews said in an announcement. “We have extensive experience in multidistrict litigation (MDL) and are pleased to continue filing for counties.”

With Hall County, the law firm negotiated a 30 percent cut of any settlement that takes place in exchange for not charging the county for any of the legal work and research required to make the case.

The county, meanwhile, will be able to show the financial damage caused by the opioid crisis in hospital costs, jail costs, law enforcement and through other aspects of local government and potentially recoup those costs through a settlement with drug manufacturers.

The Gainesville City Council has not yet decided whether the city will join the suit, City Manager Bryan Lackey told The Times on Thursday, March 15, but a decision could be made as early as Tuesday. Likewise, the Northeast Georgia Health System is not involved in the lawsuit, according to spokesman Sean Couch, and he noted the system doesn’t have enough information at this time to make a statement on whether it would join the suit in the future.

Pope said the problems of the opioid crisis have become so dire that life expectancy is falling in certain middle class populations for the first time in decades. In figures previously reported by The Times, the Northeast Georgia Medical Center emergency room handled 280 cases of opiate overdoses in 2015. In 2016, that figure jumped to 700.

Lawyers around the United States are laying the blame on the pharmaceutical industry, which they say either encouraged opioids to be over-prescribed in the past 20 years or outright deceived doctors and the public about how addictive the drugs were.

“We believe it will be established that these drug companies deliberately set out to addict millions of people to opioids,” Matthews said in the announcement. “This is a crisis with a profound impact in the state of Georgia.”

In Judge Polster’s view, the entire nation shares in the blame of what he said was clearly an epidemic.

“In my humble opinion, everyone shares some of the responsibility, and no one has done enough to abate it. That includes the manufacturers, the distributors, the pharmacies, the doctors, the federal government and state government, local governments, hospitals, third-party payers and individuals. Just about everyone we’ve got on both sides of the equation in this case,” Polster said in a transcript reported by “The federal court is probably the least likely branch of government to try and tackle this, but candidly, the other branches of government, federal and state, have punted. So it’s here.”

Polster hopes to have the cases resolved in 2019 and has encouraged both plaintiffs and defendants to reach a settlement before the lawsuits go to trial.