HALL COUNTY - Citing local damage caused by the opioid epidemic, Hall County is hiring an Athens law firm to sue prescription drug manufacturers and others involved in opioid production and distribution.
The Hall County Board of Commissioners heard a proposal from county attorney Bill Blalock to hire Athens law firm Blasingame, Burch, Garrard & Ashley to file a civil suit in federal court.
Blalock told commissioners that the use of opiates has risen “sky high” since the 1990s and that it has been a significant drain on county resources, from first responders helping an overdose patient to the workload at local hospitals to the Hall County jail and court systems.
The lawsuit would be filed against more than a dozen companies, and it likely would be handled in the multidistrict litigation in Cleveland, Ohio. The lead counsel from Blasingame, Burch, Garrard & Ashley would be Henry Garrard III.
While there are more than 200 lawsuits filed against various companies in the prescription drug industry, Hall County’s suit isn’t a class-action lawsuit. The county is the only plaintiff with the Athens firm even though it will be heard by the same Ohio judge.
Blalock said the opioid lawsuits are similar to the suits filed in the 1990s against the nation’s four largest tobacco manufacturers: Philip Morris Inc., R. J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard.
In the tobacco master settlement agreement, the four companies agreed to pay $206 billion to 46 states in the first 25 years of the agreement.
This time around, the suit would be filed against the “manufacturers of prescription opiates and those in the chain of distribution of prescription opiates responsible for the opioid epidemic which is plaguing” the county, according to the resolution authorizing the suit.
Blasingame, Burch, Garrard & Ashley would not charge the county for its services. Instead, it would take a 30 percent cut of any settlement agreement or judgment against the prescription drug industry.
The law firm confirmed that it was working with the county on an agreement to handle the lawsuit but declined comment until after the lawsuit was authorized.
Commissioners are set to vote on the lawsuit during their Tuesday, March 6, voting meeting. The meeting usually takes place on Thursday but was moved to Tuesday to accommodate scheduling conflicts on the part of the commission.
Commissioners signaled support for the lawsuit on Monday, March 5.
“There’s probably not a person or a family in this room that hasn’t been affected by this,” Commissioner Scott Gibbs said of the opioid epidemic.
Meanwhile, Board of Commissioners Chairman Richard Higgins said the lawsuit “needs to be done” and that the epidemic “just keeps getting worse and worse.”
If commissioners authorize the lawsuit, Blalock said he expects it would be filed before the end of the week. He had not seen a draft of the suit as of Monday.
For the past few weeks, The Times has dug into the local opioid epidemic in its podcast, “Back to Life.” In the latest episode, local law enforcement officers talk about their fight against the drug trade and the toll opioids have taken on the community.