BATON ROUGE — Melissa Landry, the executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, has expressed concerns over whether a partnership between the Jefferson Parish Council and four law firms to go after opioid manufacturers and distributors is “a legitimate solution” to America’s opioid crisis.
“With more than 100 Americans lost to drug overdoses every day, there is no question [that] this is the challenge of our time,” she told the Louisiana Record. “But joining a witch hunt that’s being led by profit-motivated trial lawyers is not a legitimate solution to the opioid epidemic."
More than 100 U.S. cities and counties, including Jefferson Parish, have filed opioid epidemic-related lawsuits. In April, the Jefferson Parish Council approved a contract to pursue a lawsuit in the 24th Judicial District Court in Gretna.
But Landry said that litigation won’t get to the root of the problem.
"In order to truly address this public health crisis, we need policymakers, regulators, doctors, scientists, law enforcement officials, families and parents to all work together to reach vulnerable people who are at risk long before [they] start abusing legal and illegal drugs,” she said.
Opioid-related overdoses have been on the rise in the U.S. More than 300,000 people nationwide have fatally overdosed on opioids over the past 18 years, according to the U.S. Department of State.
The Jefferson Parish Coroner’s Office reported that 139 people in the parish died of opioid-related overdoses in 2017.
Drug makers and distributors, however, contend that the opioid crisis is a complex issue and that they should not be held responsible for the problem because they don’t write the prescriptions, doctors do.
“The idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated," John Parker, senior vice president of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, which represents drug distributors, said in a recent statement.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list methadone, oxycodone and hydrocodone as the top three drugs associated with opioid deaths. Oxycodone is branded by manufacturer Purdue Pharma as OxyContin and Endo. Hydrocodone is sold as Vicodin by Chicago-based AbbVie Inc.
The council's Legal Services Evaluation Committee vetted 34 law firms to determine which ones would represent Jefferson Parish in court. Of the four firms chosen, only one, LeBlanc, Fantaci and Villio, received the highest possible rating from the committee.
LeBlanc, Fantaci and Villio contributed $20,620 over the course of two years to the campaigns of council members and Parish President Mike Yenni, according to the Times-Picayune.
Firms representing the parish will either be paid the fees awarded by the court, or 25 percent of the first $25 million recovered, 20 percent of the next $25 million, 15 percent of the next $75 million and 10 percent of the rest. The actual amounts paid depend on when the recovery is made.
“I am deeply concerned that the parish has essentially agreed to pay outside plaintiff lawyers at least one-fourth of any funds recovered to address this crisis, plus legal expenses, which can be millions of dollars in big cases like this,” Landry said. "That is far too lucrative for the attorneys, and it creates a potentially improper financial incentive for trial lawyers to maximize their fees irrespective of the public interest."