Wicomico Council Debates Joining Opioid Litigation

SALISBURY – Officials in Wicomico County this week said they would soon decide on taking part in legal action against opioid manufacturers.

On Tuesday, the Wicomico County Council met with executive staff to reconsider a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies.

Last year, the council opted against joining a multi-district lawsuit against opioid manufacturers for their alleged role in the country’s opioid crisis. This week, however, the issue was back on the work session agenda for discussion.

Sheriff Mike Lewis – who supports the county entering into litigation – noted the many accidents and fatalities that occur in Wicomico County as a result of opioids.

“These are things that continue to unfold every single day in our community,” he said. “Quite honestly, I deal with these issues more than I do with anything else.”

Lewis argued the county had the opportunity to hold opioid manufactures accountable. He encouraged the council to hire special legal counsel and recoup money that was redirected to address the opioid crisis.

“Why we would wait any longer, to me, defies logic,” he said. “Wicomico County has nothing to lose, but everything to gain.”

Council Attorney Bob Taylor, however, cautioned the council from taking any immediate action.

He said the multi-district case, pending in federal court in Cleveland, could be converted into a class action lawsuit, making it possible for municipalities across the nation to receive some compensation from opioid manufacturers.

“I’m not saying don’t do litigation or don’t hire an attorney, but what I am saying is do it smartly,” he said. “In this national litigation, it may actually eliminate the need for an attorney, which obviously will help any net amount the county gets.”

Taylor added that the roughly 1,800 plaintiffs in the multi-district case could grow to include nearly 25,000 local governments if it is converted to a class action lawsuit.

“We’ve got tons of plaintiffs and relatively few defendants …,” he said. “There’s not that much money to go around.”

County Attorney Paul Wilber noted that money from any pending settlement would likely be distributed to participating municipalities based on a formula.

He added that discussions with a lawyer involved in the case highlighted a possible two-tier system in which those plaintiffs that participated earlier in the litigation received a larger compensation.

“He was saying if we were getting in, we should definitely try to get in this month,” he said.

Unlike Taylor, Wilber also recommended the county hire special legal counsel, regardless of whether the multi-district litigation is converted to a class action lawsuit.

“I would recommend you have an attorney,” he said. “I think this is the most complex piece of litigation the court system in this country has seen … Even if it is a class action, it is not as simple as filing some paperwork and getting paid.”

Council President Cannon said the council should consider different law firms to represent the county should it pursue litigation.

“I think we need to evaluate what the most advantageous position is for the county from the onset, period,” he said. “Where the chips fall is a completely different matter.”

With no further discussion, the council agreed to make a formal decision on the issues at its July 16 meeting.

“If we hire legal counsel for this, we would need a resolution,” Cannon said.

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.