Marietta sees little risk in joining drug lawsuit

MARIETTA — Like most long shots, Marietta’s participation in a massive lawsuit against drug manufacturers and distributors involves little risk for a potential windfall.

Marietta City Council received a presentation June 27 from Marietta attorney Ethan Vessels, a partner in Fields, Dehmlow and Vessels, indicating that the city could be represented by him in the legal action at no cost.

Washington County Commissioners have already decided to join the suit and are being represented by Vessels.

State, county and city governments have filed damage claims against pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors across the country, and some include retail pharmacies, doctors and health clinics. All are broadly based on damages the plaintiffs allege have been caused by irresponsible promotion, distribution or prescription of opioids. Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed involving thousands of lawyers.

Of those, at least 433 cases have been compiled by U.S. District Court Dan Polson in Cleveland, who has scheduled three to go to trial in March 2019. Polson has said attempts to create a mass settlement in the case, similar to the model used in litigation against tobacco companies, has been resisted by the defendants.

Marietta City Council member at large Cindy Oxender said this week the opioid crisis has cost the city and she can’t see any downside to the city participating in the litigation.

“I believe the city has incurred some costs in the safety services budget,” she said. “Narcan, street runs, staff time in police and fire,” she said. “It’s had a negative impact on the budget, and I’m very interested in pursuing this … an attorney has stepped forward, and there will be no charges unless we’re awarded compensation.”

Oxender also said in an email to city council and administration that she would like to see any settlement money earmarked for the police and fire departments.

Vessels said he will do the work on a contingency basis, which means he will be paid only if there are proceeds from the legal action.

“The city will never get a bill from me or from anybody else,” he said.

Vessels cautioned that the litigation is complex and the outcome is uncertain.

“Keeping this in mind is very important: For the city, don’t count the chickens before they are hatched,” he said. “It’s far from certain whether a settlement will come or how much. The counties have suffered the larger damage, and cities would have a hard time establishing that same level of damage. Anything we can get is good, but I don’t want anyone to think there is a multimillion dollar settlement out there for Marietta, because there isn’t.”

The city will have to present some evidence of damage to back its claim, Vessels said.

“It’s speculative, and I don’t know how that will be done. If there are damages awarded, I don’t know how that will be done, but it’s going to be much more than just pro-rated by population. It can be shown, for instance at the state level, that Idaho and Nebraska have spent much less than Ohio on hospitalizations and foster care. You show who has been damaged differently.”

City council president Josh Schlicher – who was not at the June 27 meeting – said he supports joining the litigation.

“It won’t cost anything, and there have been increased costs to the city, from emergency runs to respond to overdoses, there have been supply purchases that are an added burden,” he said.

Oxender said the possibility of bringing money into the city is worth the commitment.

“I would be surprised if anyone objected,” she said. “Given the city’s current financial outlook, I think most people would welcome the opportunity to have that funding.”

The discussion was referred to the city council safety committee, and city attorney Paul Bertram is in the process of drawing up enabling legislation, Oxender said.

The potential proceeds are unknown, for Marietta and all the other plaintiffs. Vessels said whatever the ultimate settlement, it won’t make anyone whole.

“There is no way on earth the defendants will have enough money to pay for all the damage that has been caused,” he said.