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County intends to sue pharmaceutical companies

Douglas County is among a growing number of Wisconsin counties taking on pharmaceutical companies over the opioid epidemic.

The County Board on Thursday night approved signing a letter of engagement with counsel in relation to claims against opioid manufacturers because of the rapid rise in problems stemming from the use, abuse and overuse of opioid medications. The motion was amended to record the decision had the support of the full board.

The county plans to sign an engagement letter with von Briesen & Roper, s.c. and Crueger Dickinson LLC, together with Simmons Hanly Conroy LLC.

Societal costs of opioid abuse are about $75 billion annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 1999, the number of overdose deaths has quadrupled.

The idea was pushed by the Wisconsin Counties Association during a conference in late September, Douglas County Board Chairman Mark Liebaert said. After the conference, county officials asked corporate counselor Carolyn Pierce to take a look at it to determine whether the county should participate, Liebaert said.

Pierce drafted a list of pros, cons and unknowns the county would face if it proceeds with legal action. She cautiously recommended that it is something the county would have to sign onto if it's going to recover any costs from the lawsuit.

"A lot of it is unknown at this point," Pierce said. "They can't really tell us how much we're looking at in terms of recovery. We're really at the investigation point where the county is going to have to come up with damages."

Among the risks is that the lawyers for the pharmaceutical companies could bury the county in paperwork, which would increase staffing costs, Liebaert said.

"At some point, the sheriff's office, health and human services, or some other agencies, will have to put in a lot of work to prove our claim," Liebaert said.

Pierce said attorneys involved in the lawsuit would assist with the discovery process. They would be paid on a contingency basis.

"Whether or not there is going to be a big pot of gold at the end remains to be seen," Pierce said. But, she said, the county has no chance to recover its costs if it doesn't participate.

Several Wisconsin counties, including Eau Claire, Sauk, Marathon, Columbia and Grant, have already approved joining the lawsuit, according to news reports. The Wisconsin Counties Association hopes 60 to 70 of Wisconsin's 72 counties join in the lawsuit.

Liebaert likened the potential lawsuit to the one states won against tobacco companies about two decades ago. Then, the settlement received by the state wasn't shared with counties. Wisconsin's share of the settlement was largely used to patch holes in the state budget.

"This is obviously not a sure thing, but we do have costs from this opioid addiction," Liebaert said.