FARGO - The Cass County Commission voted Monday, Aug. 20, to pursue its own lawsuit against the manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioids, a suit that will be separate from the one the state of North Dakota filed earlier this year against Purdue Pharma, the nation's leading maker of such drugs.
“The state is too narrow in its claim,” Commissioner Vern Bennett said before voting with the rest of the commission to hire the California-based law firm Robbins, Geller, Rudman & Dowd to represent the county.
Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick has said that if the state's lawsuit reaches a settlement, it isn’t clear how that money would benefit the county. One reason for the county filing its own suit is to have better control over how settlement money would be spent, Burdick said, adding that county leaders want to use such money to help address the problem of opioid abuse.
At the commission's June 4 meeting, Parrell Grossman, director of the Consumer Protection Division of the North Dakota Attorney General's Office, advised commissioners against pursuing a separate legal action, saying that individual lawsuits from North Dakota's political subdivisions could hinder a settlement for the state.
Along with North Dakota, Minnesota and several other states have sued Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, a prescription opioid.
"We are convinced and think because the opioid crisis is statewide that it should be dealt with at the state level," Grossman said.
The contract the county is entering into with Robbins, Geller, Rudman & Dowd calls for the law firm to receive 18 percent of any money recovered, after expenses.
Commissioners said there’s no estimate available on how much money the county could conceivably recover, but Commissioner Rick Stein said, “If we get over a million, that would be fantastic.”
Cass County is looking to join multidistrict litigation that is moving its way through federal court in Ohio.
In exploring representation options, Cass County considered hiring the South Carolina-based Motley Rice law firm. Commissioners said both firms were qualified and the decision really came down to the fee rates quoted by the firms.
Motley Rice was asking for 25 percent of any recovery up to $2.5 million, with the percentage dropping incrementally down to 5 percent for any recovery of $5.5 million or more.
“Every penny is going to be needed, and every penny is going to add up,” Commissioner Chad Peterson said.
The Fargo City Commission is looking into its options regarding a lawsuit against prescription opioid makers, and a public discussion will eventually be held on the topic, Mayor Tim Mahoney said Monday.
Elsewhere in North Dakota, several tribal nations have filed lawsuits against the opioid industry.
Archie Ingersoll contributed to this report.