City to enter opioid lawsuit

Leaders of Calhoun County’s cities have less than three weeks to decide whether to be part of a major settlement with opioid manufacturers, though some local leaders Thursday said they weren’t aware of the deadline. 

“It’s kind of unprecedented in its scale,” said Bruce Downey, city attorney for Anniston. 

Anniston last year filed suit against Purdue, Teva and more than a dozen other major drug companies, looking for reimbursement for the cost to the city from the opioid epidemic. The Anniston suit was part of a wave of similar suits across the country, from cities claiming opioid use — the source of a surge in overdose deaths — had increased costs to hospitals, law enforcement agencies and social services.

Since last year, Anniston’s case has been swept up into something much larger: Federal courts have folded many of the suits across the country into a single legal action, with lawyers for 49 of the affected cities expected to negotiate a settlement with drug companies. Anniston isn’t one of the cities that will negotiate a settlement, but will be a part of the settlement unless it opts out of the case, Downey said. 

“It can’t be a class action, so it’s what’s considered a ‘mass action,’” Downey said.

At a council meeting earlier this year, Downey told council members the city had until Nov. 22 to opt out if council members want to. The council hasn’t taken action on the case since. Attempts to reach City Manager Steven Folks and Mayor Jack Draper were unsuccessful Wednesday, but Downey said he believed the city should stick with the legal action instead of pulling out and continuing its suit alone. 

“The alternative would be to wait your turn and litigate at your own expense,” Downey said. 

Attempts to reach lawyers in the consolidated case were unsuccessful, but it’s clear they expect any settlement to yield billions of dollars. A map on the official webpage for the case, opioidsnegotiationclass.info, offers estimates of how much money every city would likely see from every billion in revenue from the settlement. Anniston would pick up $111,040 for every billion; Oxford would get $46,065; Jacksonville would get $46,065. 

Lawyers in the case calculated that payout based on a number of factors, including the total amount of opioids shipped into a county and the number of opioid deaths in that county. Under that formula, Calhoun County would get about $3 per resident for every billion paid out by drug companies, higher than the statewide average. 

Walker County, long reputed to be the Alabama area worst hit by opioids, would get around $8 per capita — a rate similar to the payout expected in parts of Kentucky and West Virginia.

Oxford city leaders have decided to opt into the negotiations, said Taylor Sloan, spokeswoman for the city. 

In other local cities names as parties in the negotiation, city leaders weren’t aware they were included in the combined case. 

“I haven’t seen or heard anything about it,” said Albertha “Bert” Grant, city administrator for Jacksonville. The city voted to join an opioid lawsuit in 2017, one of the first local governments to do so. 

“I thought we’d already tried that and didn’t qualify,” said Ohatchee Mayor Steve Baswell. 

Baswell said he doesn’t doubt opioids have had an effect on the city, though he said it’s a hard thing for a small town to quantify. A town of 1,100, Ohatchee has only one doctor, according to Baswell. The mayor said he hears about residents struggling with addiction, but only through the grapevine, with little way to document the effects. 

“If they think we qualify, don’t tell them different,” he said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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