The Opioid Crisis

Chatham County sues opioid manufacturers, distributors

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 5/31/19

Chatham County has joined serveral cities, counties and states across America in seeking financial restitution for damage done by opioids.

The county government announced Wednesday it has decided …

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The Opioid Crisis

Chatham County sues opioid manufacturers, distributors

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Posted

Chatham County has joined serveral cities, counties and states across America in seeking financial restitution for damage done by opioids.

The county government announced Wednesday it has decided to file a class action suit in federal court against “manufacturers and distributors of opioids which have created such a problem in Chatham County and across the country.”

The Chatham County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously in a closed session May 20 to take legal action, something Chairman Mike Dasher said was a long time coming.

“We’ve been talking about it for a while,” Dasher told the News + Record. “It’s something that has really frustrated me for a couple years. We just felt like this was the right team of lawyers and the right time to move forward.”

The county has hired several North Carolina-based attorneys to help in the effort, including Siler City-based Ben Atwater of Atwater Law Firm. Atwater said he and the other attorneys are getting started on getting a complaint drafted, and while he didn’t mention any manufacturer or distributor in particular, he said “there will be a lengthy list of them.”

“The human toll and financial toll is staggering as to what it caused,” he said. “All kinds of damages are caused by these things, from law enforcement to social services budgets. We need it for treatment, education. There will be a damages model from all of these things, how this opioid crisis has affected not just Chatham County but everyone.”

The commissioners passed a resolution on Nov. 20, 2017, declaring the opioid crisis a public health nuisance “which must be abated for the benefit of Chatham County and its residents and citizens.” The resolution stated that the county “has seen an increase in opioid overdoses...in recent years,” and that 74 percent of the children placed in custody of Chatham County’s Department of Social Services were the result of substance abuse. Additionally, 27 deaths from unintentional opiate poisioning have occurred in Chatham from 1999-2017.

“(The county) is determined to take proactive measures to mitigate further increases,” the resolution said. “Chatham County has expended, and is expending, and will continue to expend in the future substantial County funds to respond to the serious public health and safety crisis involving all types of substance misuse, addiction, morbidity, and mortality in Chatham County.”

However, the county is not spending any taxpayer money on the litigation. Dasher said any attorney fees will come out of the financial settlement.

The next step, Atwater said, was for the lawyers to work with the county to develop statistics related to how the opioid crisis has affected the county’s budget and expenditures, as well as human costs. It’s likely, he added, that Chatham’s suit would be combined with other litigation once it reaches federal court.

In the county press release, Dasher stressed that the county was “seizing the opportunity to lead” the battle against the opioid crisis.

“Chatham County has already taken steps to combat this public health and safety crisis, which has impacted county budget expenditures in several areas,” he said. “We are being proactive in seeking appropriate reimbursement of past expenditures through legal channels from those responsible for the costs of this health and safety crisis. Most of all, we must secure additional funds to abate the nuisance going forward.”

Thousands of suits have been filed in recent years against manufacturers and distributors. One major suit was settled in March, when Purdue Pharma, the maker of the opioid Oxycontin, agreed to pay the state of Oklahoma $270 million to fund addiction research and treatment in the state, according to report on NPR.

Several North Carolina counties have already filed similar suits to Chatham County’s, including Lee County, Chatham’s neighbor to the south. That county’s commissioners voted in September 2018 to hire a law firm to represent them in litigation, and declared the opioid crisis a public health nuisance by a 5-2 vote in December.

The News + Record recently published a five-part series on the opioid crisis in Chatham County, a report that revealed the extent of the problem in the area. The stories explored the addictive nature of opioids, how the spread of heroin from nearby counties and lack of awareness of available resources have inflamed the situation, and what groups and individuals are doing to fight back.

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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