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County to file lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, distributors

BEMIDJI—Beltrami County Attorney David Hanson got the go-ahead Tuesday to select a firm and file a lawsuit against national opioid manufacturers and distributors.

Beltrami County now joins numerous other local governments in what Hanson described as a multi-district court litigation. The litigation, Hanson told the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, is akin to a class action lawsuit. However, where a class action has all the plaintiffs get together on a single suit, multidistrict litigations remain separate.

"The way it works is they have a panel and makes an assessment, they say 'We're getting a whole bunch of these lawsuits filed on the same type of case, so we'll assign a single judge,'" Hanson said. "It's a situation where there are a lot of benefits and very few costs. If there is a settlement, we would stand to get a sizable sum of money dedicated to fighting opioid addiction."

Hanson said the first lawsuit filed will get in front of the judge first. In that scenario, the first suit goes to trial, and possibly the second, but Hanson said after that settlements begin, based on the outcome of the first lawsuits that went to trial.

"From my perspective, whether or not we think the manufacturers are 100 percent liable is almost irrelevant, because in the civil world, you can have a verdict saying an entity is, say, 60 percent liable for damages," Hanson said.

According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, in 2016, Minnesota health care providers wrote 3.5 million prescriptions for opioids. In many of the lawsuits already filed, the Pioneer Press reports that attorneys are alleging the flood of pills is due to a dishonest campaign going back to the late 1990s to convince doctors that opioids were not addictive. Data from the Minnesota Department of Health shows that 395 people died from opioid overdoses in 2016.

"When it comes to the liability of the manufacturers, they knowingly misrepresented their product. They said the chances of an average person getting addicted to the meds was near zero," District 2 Commissioner Reed Olson said. "They pushed that really hard, knowing it wasn't true. I strongly feel they will be found liable, because they told our doctors to push this."

"Right now, the crisis that's hitting the U.S., especially rurally, is a large heroin epidemic. That's what's killing people," Hanson said. "Part of the allegations in these suits are that these companies got people addicted to opioids, then the Center for Disease Control comes in and restricts the distribution in the hospitals, and now you have so many people still addicted that it creates this black market heroin problem."

For the county to file its own lawsuit as others have done, Hanson said there will be basically no monetary cost, but some labor will be required by staff.

"The firm takes on the risk. They're saying 'We think this is such a strong lawsuit that we're willing to risk not getting paid anything if we lose,'" he said. "If we as the county were to win the suit, the firm gets 25 percent of whatever we settle for. The one spot where the county could see a cost is in labor. If we do file a lawsuit, we would be expected to help that firm produce discovery. Those records would have to be those that our departments have in-house."

"If it's not going to cost us anything, why wouldn't we put our name on the lawsuit and be listed in there," District 5 Commissioner Jim Lucachick said. "I'm in favor of it from what I've heard today."

"I've seen firsthand how the opioids have affected my community, so I'd be in favor of this," District 4 Commissioner Tim Sumner said. "I'm all for looking for ways to try and address the social issues that we have here in the county, and I feel this will help some of those that we face."

The commissioners gave authority for Hanson to move forward with the pursuing the matter by approving their consent agenda Tuesday. So far, Hanson said about 12 other Minnesota counties have filed lawsuits. Several American Indian tribes also have filed lawsuits.

2017 aquatic invasive species report

Beltrami County Aquatic Invasive Species Technician Bruce Anspach presented a summary to commissioners on 2017 inspections. In all, the county's AIS program handled 12,277 inspections, with the following results:

• The number of boaters who removed their plugs, 98.1 percent.

• Boaters with clean water vessels, 98.6 percent.

• Boaters coming from infested waters, 12.9 percent.

• Decontaminations ordered, two. There were three in 2016 and eight in 2015.

• Of the boaters inspected, 10.2 percent were from out of state.

Throughout the year, Anspach said a zebra mussel search was conducted at 62 sites in the county and no infestations were found. Anspach said the program also purchased a new decontamination program and covered the cost of treatment of Starry stonewort at a public access, with a span of 0.4 acres.

This year, Anspach said the county's program staff will work with the Mississippi Headwaters Board and Headwater counties for a digital campaign to educate boaters from out of state on invasive species. Additionally, Anspach said his program will work with Cass County, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the Chippewa National Forest and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to create an eradication plan for Starry stonewort in the Knutson Dam Harbor this year. The county's AIS program is funded by the state.

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

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