When Mike Eidson went to see Miami-Dade’s mayor about the county’s opioid crisis, the lawyer had a suggestion for some urgent action: Hire him and his legal team to sue drugmakers for costs associated with addiction to pain killers and heroin.
“My message really was you need to put some process in place to select someone to represent you, and you need to do something now,” the Coral Gables lawyer said of his recent meeting with Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Abigail Price, the county attorney. “It’s an urgent situation.”
Eidson’s pitch captures the scramble under way in Miami and across the country by lawyers to lock down local governments as clients in the widening legal battle against the pharmaceutical industry for its role in a nationwide epidemic of opioid addiction that adds to local costs for police, paramedics, anti-overdose drugs and other expenses.
It’s a high-profile effort: Among the lawyers spoiling to represent local governments with Eidson is Dan Gelber, Miami Beach’s new mayor and a longtime lawyer. Gelber declined to be interviewed, beyond saying he would not be able to represent Miami Beach as a lawyer.
The umbrella term for addictive pain killers that are often seen as a gateway to heroin use, opioids are at the heart of what medical leaders and elected officials say is a public-health emergency across the country. Lawsuits by Chicago, Ohio and other governments allege drugmakers were complicit in the crisis by misleading doctors about the addiction risks of the prescription painkillers and marketing the drugs to an unsuspecting public.
With some cities and states already in the lead in suing Big Pharma, lawyers are urging other governments to get into the action or risk being left out of the kind of landmark settlement that saw cigarette companies in 1998 agree to pay out $250 billion to states.
Melissa Emert, a New York lawyer representing Osceola County in what she said was Florida’s first county-level opioid suit, told Miami-Dade commissioners at a meeting this week that they needed a firm to get them a seat at the settlement table.
“We think it’s very important for the counties and other municipalities to get in before the states may take over these actions through the attorneys general,” Emert said Tuesday, when commissioners instructed county lawyers to explore hiring outside attorneys for an opioid case. “The firm I’m working with [Stull, Stull and Brody] has been retained by over 50 municipalities across the country, and they have filed to date over 30 actions of behalf of municipalities.”
Eidson, of Colson Hicks Eidson, spoke earlier in the meeting, publicly joining him and Emert in a competition to shepherd Miami-Dade into the opioid legal wars. Representing Miami-Dade could mean a significant windfall for Eidson or any of the rival legal groups competing for the county’s potential payout, which could run into the millions.
Through a spokesman, Gimenez said he was interested in the litigation but does not have a pick for which law firm the county should hire. Eidson and his firm gave more than $40,000 to Gimenez’s 2016 reelection effort.
Gimenez told Eidson “You need to discuss that with Abi,” spokesman Michael Hernández said, referring to the county attorney and Eidson’s interest in taking on the county as a client. “Would the mayor [want to] join a lawsuit? Probably.”
In a statement, Purdue Pharma communications chief Bob Josephson criticized governments for trying to outsource legal work to law firms eager to reap profits from an addiction crisis.
“We share public officials’ concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions,” he said. “The delegation of law enforcement authority to a private law firm with a financial interest in the outcome creates serious public policy concerns and presents a clear conflict of interest.”
Firms typically work for free in exchange for keeping at least 20 percent of any future payout. Eidson, who is allied with a Washington, D.C. lawyer considered a pioneer in the opioid suits, Linda Singer, said he would offer the county a 25 percent contingency fee.
“That’s more or less what I’ve seen from anyone trying to get this business,” Eidson said. He said that he pitched his legal group’s expertise to the mayor and Price, the county attorney, but thinks Miami-Dade should select an outside firm through a competitive process decided by the County Commission.
Eidson has already pursued Miami as a client, and in September the City Commission voted to authorize hiring an outside firm for opioid litigation. No firm has been selected. Eidson said he and Gelber and the other affiliated firms are also hoping to represent Broward in a similar suit.
Local governments have a long list of expenses they can link to opioid abuse. With addiction to prescription painkillers leading to heroin addiction when the medicine runs out, local officials say the opioid crisis has been a drain on police costs, paramedic staffing, anti-overdose drugs like Narcan, and administrative costs tied to drug courts and other narcotics-related services.
A presentation Emert handed out to Miami-Dade commissioners at the meeting said governments can also seek opioid-related damages for budgets tied to foster care, lost workforce productivity, and even “body storage.”
Richard Ausness, a University of Kentucky law professor, said litigation shouldn’t be considered a way to tackle a public health crisis, since settlement dollars tend to mean windfalls for cash-strapped governments but don’t bring more resources to the root problem.
“If these government entities get any money out of the drug companies, there’s no assurance they’re going to spend it on drug treatment. They could build roads with it,” he said.
Still, Ausness said he didn’t see a problem with law firms seeking governments out as clients for a share of any settlement proceeds. “There’s nothing unethical about it,” he said. “It’s a no-lose situation for the government. If the cases don’t go anywhere, they’re not out anything.”