REED CITY — Osceola County has entered a multi-district lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies for their alleged role in the opioid addiction epidemic.
In a 5-2 vote on Feb. 6, the Osceola County Board of Commissioners retained the law firm Smith and Johnson to prosecute pharmaceutical companies for damages incurred from opioid addiction.
The Traverse City-based law firm currently represents more than 40 Michigan municipal governments.
Board of Commissioners Chairman Larry Emig said that hearing the support of the Michigan Association of Counties, an advocacy group that provides legislative support for Michigan counties, helped to shape his decision to vote in favor of entering into the lawsuit.
"I wasn't interested before, but it was helpful hearing this today," Emig said.
Attorney Timothy Smith explained that the lawsuit is not a conventional class action and that Osceola County would have its own case in federal court as part of what is known as a mass tort.
Osceola County, along 200 other municipalities from across the country, would all file as a single unit in court, but each would retain control over its own case.
"Every single municipality that is currently involved across the country has its own lawsuit," Smith said. "The beauty of that is that rather than being a part of a big gang of plaintiffs involved in the singular suit with a singular resolution and then arguing at the end over who gets what, you have your own suit. Your county has control."
Smith said costs incurred during the case are based on contingent fee litigation, meaning fees are payable only if the case is won.
"If we are not successful, then you do not owe anything for our time — we're not asking you to reimburse us for the cost," Smith said.
If the case is successful, and it results in reparations being distributed, 70 percent goes to Osceola and 30 percent to Smith and Johnson.
"We're taking on a lot of risk, but I think we have some of the best attorneys in the country working on this case," Smith said. "I think we have a good shot."
On Monday, Alger County retained Smith and Johnson, and Gratiot County also agreed to join the litigation on Feb. 6.
Opposing the move was Commissioner Pamela Wayne, who said that the fault of the opioid epidemic rests with the doctors who prescribed the medications. Commissioner Mark Gregory was in agreement and also voted against the motion.
"The reason I voted no is that I believe the money the lawyers are going to get for fighting all of this could be used in other ways as far as educating doctors, pharmacists or whoever into what needs to be done and get people off these addictions," Wayne said. "It sounds like we're going back and trying to get the drug companies now when we should be worried about moving forward and helping these people who are addicted."
Smith and Johnson attorney Timothy Smith attended the meeting and explained how pharmaceutical companies in the past have been proven to be using unethical business practices to sell opioid medications.
He explained how a person can become addicted to some opioid medications, such as fentanyl, after a one-week prescription.
In 2015, enough opioid medication was prescribed in Osceola County for 169 pills per person, which is up from 154 pills in 2010.
According to documentation from Smith and Johnson, Michigan ranks 10th in the nation for per capita prescribing rates of opioid pain relievers and 18th for opioid deaths.
Opioids were once used in hospitals to treat cancer and for end-of-life treatment, where the possibility of addiction wasn't concerned, but advertising and sales tactics became much more aggressive.
"These are companies, manufacturers and distributors that have been doing business in a fashion that has harmed municipalities not only in Michigan but across the country," Smith said.