SALISBURY – Officials this week agreed to hire Texas law firms to represent Wicomico County as it takes legal action against opioid manufacturers.
On Tuesday, the Wicomico County Council agreed to hire the law firms of Ferrer, Poirot & Wansbrough and Fears Nachawati as it pursues litigation against opioid manufacturers for their alleged role in the country’s opioid crisis.
Last year, the council opted against joining counties and municipalities across the nation in a lawsuit. Earlier this month, however, the issue was back on the agenda for discussion.
While Sheriff Mike Lewis said litigation would allow the county to hold opioid manufacturers accountable and recoup money that was redirected to address the opioid crisis, Council Attorney Bob Taylor cautioned the council from taking any immediate action. He noted a 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.
This week, members of the council had before them a resolution to hire the law firms to pursue Wicomico County claims for the manufacture, distribution, marketing and sale of opioids.
The retainer contract with the attorneys includes a calculation for legal fees based on money recovered from the lawsuit. For example, the agreement allows the firms to collect 25% of any recovery up to $10 million.
While some members of the council shared their concerns regarding the attorney’s fees, Councilman Bill McCain argued the fees were fair.
“That’s pretty standard,” he said. “Actually with most class action lawsuits it’s 40%.”
County Attorney Paul Wilber added the agreement was the most beneficial for Wicomico County.
“About 15 months ago, there were three firms that approached the county, and each made a proposal,” he said. “This was the most financially favorable one to this county.”
Council President John Cannon and Councilman Joe Holloway questioned if the county had approached other firms.
“It’s like buying a product,” he said. “If you have three people trying to sell you one and you know there are four or five other people, you might want to check with them to make sure you are getting the best deal. I don’t want to cut ourselves short just because they approached us.”
Cannon also questioned a portion of the agreement that required the county to reimburse attorneys for costs associated with travel, witness fees, consultants and more.
“What restrictions would we have on that to make sure it’s not an open checkbook?” he asked.
Wilber noted there was typically no spending cap.
“They will do what is appropriate to best represent the county and all of these plaintiffs across the country …,” he said. “You want the attorneys to represent you as fully and as best as they are able. If that requires 20 depositions or 200 depositions, that’s what it has to be.”
After further discussion, the council voted 4-2, with Holloway and Dodd opposed, to approve special legal counsel.
Despite multiple discussions on possible settlement amounts, Councilman Josh Hastings said he wanted to make the council’s intentions clear.
“I don’t want the public to think we’ve lost sight of how the opioid industry and the corporations that have carried that out, have caused real damage to real families here in Wicomico County,” he said.