Wicomico joins litigation against opioid makers

Agreeing to be a participant in what’s being described in municipal circles as “a race to the courthouse,” Wicomico County formally joined a host of counties in Maryland and elsewhere as clients of a Texas law firm seeking to sue opioid manufacturers for reparations.

County Executive Bob Culver took the proposal to hire the outside law firm last month, and the County Council held a spirited public discussion on the issue at its July 2 meeting. The council voted 5-1 on Tuesday to hire a national legal group.

County Director of Administration Wayne Strausburg had initially signed a retainer agreement with the law firms Ferrer, Poirot & Wansbrough and Fears Nachawati last week, but to make the deal official, a council vote was required.

Cities and counties nationwide are seeking dollars from pharmaceutical companies whose products are being blamed for making drug addicts out of people undergoing routine pain treatment. Wicomico County has seen a surge of opioid-related overdoses, arrests and treatment needs in the last five years, straining health and law enforcement resources.

Under the retainer, the county would allow the firm to keep 25 percent of any recovery up to $10 million. The percentages vary for larger amounts, with the legal fees ranging lower for larger settlements.

The council’s attorney, Robert B. Taylor, had advised that a federal class-action lawsuit was in the works and Wicomico might want to instead wait to participate, as the legal fees would be far less.

Wicomico Sheriff Mike Lewis, however, had advised council members to “get a seat at the (legal) table as fast as possible.

“When you’re dealing with a crisis, like this one in our county, you must seek experts in this field. Wicomico County has nothing to lose but everything to gain.”

Lewis cited the work of Fears Nachawati attorney Jonathan Novak, a former Drug Enforcement Agency lawyer who made headlines with a 2017 appearance on “60 Minutes” and is now suing pharmaceutical companies.

The council was presented with a similar proposal just over a year ago, but declined to act then.

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