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Western Maryland towns join opioid litigation

FILE - This Feb. 19, 2013 file photo shows OxyContin (oxycodone) pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

OxyContin (oxycodone) pills at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vermont. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

Western Maryland is joining the legal battle to hold drug companies accountable for the opioid epidemic, with several jurisdictions filing suit in federal court Friday.

Allegany County and two of its cities, Frostburg and Cumberland, filed racketeering lawsuits in U.S. District Court. Hagerstown also filed suit.

The four newest filings echo the allegations made by other jurisdictions that manufacturers and distributors of drugs such as OxyContin knowingly misled doctors and consumers about the addictive quality of prescription opioids and manufactured a market by overstating their benefits for chronic pain treatment.

The defendant companies have denied the allegations in all of the lawsuits and stress their commitment to the appropriate use of their products and combating the opioid epidemic.

Most of the cases filed nationwide have already been transferred to multi-district litigation in Ohio, where they join Baltimore, Cecil, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties as well as hundreds from around the country.

U.S. District Judge Dan Polster, who is overseeing the MDL, is pushing for solutions to the epidemic while litigation is pending, and the parties are in talks for a global settlement.

The Western Maryland cases were filed by D. Bruce Poole of the Poole Law Group in Hagerstown, who is serving as Maryland counsel with a group of law firms representing a majority of the MDL litigants.

“There’s a lot of effort right now to try to deal with the non-money issues which I think would be tremendous,” Poole said in an interview Monday. “Hopefully, we can start changing how opioids are put out in our society and start to turn the tide.”

The cities within Allegany County filed their own suits because they have separate damages and may want different injunctive relief, according to Poole.

“It’s going to take a large amount of money because we’ve already been in this 10 years and to pull out of it’s probably going to be 20 years or more,” he said.

In 2016, 59 people died of drug- or alcohol-related overdoses in Allegany County, according to the complaint; 34 deaths were due to heroin and 15 were from prescription opioids. By September 2017, another 31 people had fatally overdosed, 29 of them from opioids.

Centers for Disease Control data indicates opioid prescriptions in Allegany County “have exceeded any legitimate medical, scientific, or industrial purpose,” according to the complaint, reaching a rate of more than one prescription per person in the county.

Poole said people in other parts of the state are surprised at the impact opioids have had in rural Maryland.

“What a lot of people lost track of is it’s not just the addict — it’s the addict’s family, it’s the addict’s support group,” he said. “This has been really like a dirty bomb just dropped in our communities.”

In the more rural areas, first responders and social services have been over-taxed because residents are so spaced out and there aren’t large charitable organizations in place like in more urban areas.

Poole said Western Maryland officials are “livid” and “spoiling for a fight” with the drug companies. He also said he does not expect settlement to be possible unless juries hand down large verdicts in some of the cases scheduled to go to trial in 2019.

“I think it’s unlikely that these cases resolve in a settlement until a couple of bellwethers go through,” he said.

Three Ohio cases are scheduled to go to trial in March 2019 in a combined proceeding.

The other law firms representing the Western Maryland plaintiffs are Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor P.A. in Pensacola, Florida; McHugh Fuller Law Group PLLC in Hattiesburg, Mississippi; Baron & Budd P.C. in Dallas; Greene, Ketchum, Farrell, Bailey & Tweel LLP in Huntington, West Virginia; and Hill, Peterson, Carper, Bee & Deitzler PLLC and Powell & Majestro PLLC, both in Charleston, West Virginia.

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