HUNTINGTON - West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is among dozens of state attorneys general who asked a federal judge for more time to research if they should have greater power in controlling settlements made by local governments suing drug firms in connection with the opioid crisis.
The move by Morrisey and the other state attorneys general was done to protect states' interests, they said. However, an attorney representing Cabell County and several other local governments who have sued drug companies criticized Morrisey for joining the other attorneys general, claiming he did so "out of spite."
The attorneys general filed two letters with a federal court earlier this month that questioned a request by lawyers representing local governments to create a negotiation class. Creating such a class creates a plan to divide any settlement money among thousands of local and county governments suing opioid drug firms with allegations they oversupplied local communities with pain pills and created the opioid epidemic.
The class would work toward settling lawsuits with 24,500 local governments across the country, creating a global settlement with the defendant drug companies. A community's population and level of opioid abuse would all factor in how much money they would receive. The local governments would have a say on whether to accept the settlement proposals, and three-quarters of communities would be needed to sign off for the deal to go through.
In the joint letters sent to Cleveland-based federal judge Dan Polster earlier this month, more than two dozen attorneys general asked for more time to research what problems such a class would bring.
Morrisey's press secretary, Curtis Johnson, said Thursday the attorney general signed the letters in the best interest of West Virginians.
"The attorney general signed on to two letters involving the matter to ensure our office has adequate time to review the proposal and protect the state's interest," he said. "We also want to ensure that settlement funds are not diverted toward excessive legal fees and away from necessary treatment for patients and other programs that target the root causes of the opioid epidemic."
Paul T. Farrell Jr. represents several local communities in the Tri-State and West Virginia as a private attorney while also serving as co-lead over the group of attorneys selected to lead the opioid litigation for better communication. Farrell said Morrisey signed the letters out of spite since he had already settled state lawsuits with several opioid defendants involved in the local lawsuits.
"Patrick Morrisey settled the lawsuits on behalf of the state of West Virginia for a fraction of what other states are going to receive, and now he wants to block his own counties and cities from recovery," he said. "Blaming his position on legal fees ignores the fact that he used to work for the very defendants that are involved in this litigation."
Farrell said Morrisey is welcome to call him anytime to discuss his issues with the lawsuits and Farrell's representation at any time.
"The AG doesn't know what he is talking about, nor has he shown up for any of the settlement discussions," he said. "He has my cell number. He can call me anytime."
Polster, who is overseeing about 2,000 municipal, county and tribal lawsuits, has given all parties in the case and state attorneys general time to respond to the planned negotiating class and set a hearing for the matter Aug. 6.
The attorneys general said diversity among the plaintiffs and differing state and local laws provide too many "unknowns" to create the negotiation class. Giving too much authority to the local governments complicates the lawsuits and undermines the role of the attorneys general, the letters said, making it impossible to find a global settlement.
There have been 48 states that have filed some type of legal action against at least one drug company, with the remaining two, Michigan and Nebraska, saying they are considering doing the same. The letters said a settlement among local defendants could hurt their ability to reach a national settlement together.
The attorneys general also noted they were worried the class might pay out excessive attorney fees and give attorneys the chance to double dip in their payout should the plaintiffs be successful, since attorneys in the case can get paid from the private attorney fees fund and a class counsel fee fund for overseeing the case.
"Although the MDL plaintiffs' counsel should be paid fairly for their work in the complex (...) proceeding, it is also a reality that the (...) defendants will likely provide a finite amount of money to resolve all of the cases, with any excess award of attorneys' fees necessarily lessening the funds available to abate the crisis," the attorneys general wrote.
A 2017 Herald-Dispatch story states the Cabell County Commission hired the law firm of Greene, Ketchum, Farrell, Bailey & Tweet on a contingency basis, taking 30% of any damages that may be won but not charging the county if no damages are awarded.
Farrell said the class certification process was designed to make the distributors pay the county's legal fees.
"Unlike Morrisey, who spent state money on outside counsel because he had a conflict suing the distributors he used to work for," he said. "Morrisey moved to West Virginia just in time to sell us out for 30 pieces of silver. Perhaps he should leave the county and city lawsuits to the lawyers born and raised here."
At a hearing Tuesday, Polster said he understood the local governments had filed the lawsuits on the heels of attorneys general so they did not get scolded as they did in the 1990s when states sued tobacco companies for similar reasons. In 1998, prior to Morrisey taking office, state attorneys general worked out a settlement that paid $126 billion to states by 2017. Less than 1% of that has gone to anti-smoking programs, and most has gone to balance state budgets.
Along with the Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, Morrisey has obtained $84 million in various settlements with drug companies in state lawsuits since 2017. A lawsuit against Purdue Pharma is pending.
Comparatively, Oklahoma settled with Purdue Pharma for $270 million and Teva Pharmaceuticals for $85 million.
All money from the West Virginia lawsuits has been divided equally among the three plaintiff state agencies, Johnson said, and a news release from Morrisey's office in May said, "The plaintiffs intend to use their portions of settlement funds to further the collective fight against drug abuse in West Virginia."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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