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Cass County considers joining opioid litigation

The Fargo/Moorhead Good Neighbor Project distributes kits of Naloxone, the generic form of opiate overdose antidote Narcan, with two clean needles and alcohol swabs. Rick Abbott / Forum News Service

FARGO — Cass County is considering joining a growing number of counties, cities and states that have launched legal action against the manufacturers and distributors of opioids.

The county has met with two law firms that have contacted them regarding potential representation in the multidistrict litigation cases, a single suit that hundreds of opioid-related lawsuits have been consolidated into.

Cass County's suit would be separate from the lawsuit North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem filed last month on behalf of the state against Purdue Pharma, the nation's leading manufacturer of prescription opioids such as OxyContin.

Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick said he does not question the attorney general, but in the event the state's lawsuit reaches a settlement, it's not clear how that money would benefit Cass County. The Cass County Commission wants to at least consider whether it might be worthwhile to pursue a more specific route, he added.

"I think it's sensible and proactive of our commission to have that conversation, to discuss if there is another approach they should take that would be beneficial for the citizens," Burdick said.

At the commission's Monday, June 4, meeting, Parrell Grossman, director of the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division, advised commissioners against pursuing other legal action. He said separate lawsuits from North Dakota's political subdivisions, such as Cass County, could hinder a settlement for the state.

"We are convinced and think because the opioid crisis is statewide that it should be dealt with at the state level," Grossman said.

On behalf of Stenehjem, Grossman suggested there is no rush for any county to join an opioid-related lawsuit because there will only be so much money available and no double recovery.

If Cass County is carved out of the state's lawsuit, they will only receive funds won by their suit, Grossman said. The county could spend significant time and resources, he added.

Stenehjem has reiterated, according to Grossman, that he will make sure Cass County is involved in the review or implementation of a plan to treat opioid abuse on a statewide basis.

During the same meeting, County Commissioner Chad Peterson said the only way to do mental health drug rehabilitation is on a statewide level.

"We don't have enough revenue to do it well," Peterson said. "The state Legislature will do the right thing. The state needs to create a solution on a statewide basis rather than locally."

Commissioners agreed at the June 4 meeting to visit with another firm for possible representation in the combined multidistrict cases, which are currently docketed in a federal court in Ohio.

County Administrator Robert Wilson said Cass County hasn't yet retained a law firm and does not have a retainer agreement in place to formally be a part of such litigation.

Wilson said he doesn't know of any specific amount the county could gain in a separate lawsuit because an estimate hasn't been discussed.

The commission is still in the decision-making process and will continue to gather information and evaluate its options, Wilson added.

The city of Fargo has also been contacted by a law firm to possibly sue in a class-action lawsuit, Mayor Tim Mahoney said.

If the lawsuit appears it may be successful, the city could get involved and using any money that comes for rehab and facilities in Fargo, he added. When the state controls the lawsuit, Mahoney said there's always a question of where the funds will go.

He said the city will consider its options and will work with the county, he said. City Attorney Erik Johnson is looking into it, and Mahoney said a public discussion will happen sometime soon regarding possible litigation.

In the ongoing work to combat the opioid crisis from a legal standpoint, four out of five North Dakota tribal nations have filed lawsuits against the opioid industry.

On the other side of the river, Clay County Commission Chair Jenny Mongeau said commissioners haven't yet discussed pursuing or joining any opioid-related litigation.

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