By Rachel Christian
Local government approved another legal measure Monday aimed at combating the opioid crisis in Osceola County.
County commissioners green-lighted an Opioid Cost Recovery and Public Nuisance ordinance this week that makes powerful claims about the deadly and costly impact opioid addiction is having on the community.
What the lawsuit claims
The measure asserts that the distribution and sale of powerful prescription
narcotic pain medications has created a “public safety hazard” that’s led to “significant” healthcare, family and social services, criminal justice and rehabilitation program costs for the county.
The local legislation allows the county to retroactively recover damages from “the responsible party” through legal or criminal action, along with “attorney’s fees, interest and any other payment or damages the court decrees proper.”
But County Attorney Andrew Mai said the ordinance is aimed less at individuals who may sell or buy the drugs, and more at the corporations that manufacture and profit from addictive opioids.
Language in Monday’s measure shares similarities with a groundbreaking lawsuit the county filed against more than 20 Big Pharma companies earlier this year, including the maker of OxyContin and corporations like Johnson & Johnson.
The first in Florida, but a growing trend
Osceola became the first county in Florida to file such a suit against pharmaceutical companies for this reason.
New York-based law firm Napoli Shkolnik signed professional service contracts with Osceola County in November, along with more than 100 other municipalities nationwide that are undergoing similar litigation cases.
Napoli Shkolnik is taking the case on for free due to a contingency clause, but if the firm wins the case, it stands to receive 25 percent of total damages awarded.
The suit, currently in circuit court, asserts claims including that drug companies put their desires for making money above the well-being of consumers by using a deceptive and unfair marketing campaign to get doctors and patients to use the powerful drugs to treat chronic pain long-term, rather than short-term, as was originally intended.
Mai said it is still being determined how much money the county stands to gain if they emerge as victors in the upcoming legal battle.
This isn’t the first time Osceola County has taken major legal action against big-name corporations.
About 10 years ago, Mai said the local government entered a suit against several large online travel websites, including Expedia and Orbitz.
The county claimed that the defending companies weren’t paying a fair share of tourism development taxes, though the website’s business models profited from site visitors who spent tourism dollars in Osceola County.
A nearly identical suit ended up before the Supreme Court, but the county ultimately lost its case when the country’s highest court ruled in favor of the online travel companies.
Because it included the same kind of contingency clause as the new opioid lawsuit, Osceola County didn’t lose money in the case 10 years ago, but it didn’t walk away with anything, either.
Mai said he’s more confident in the new opioid case then he was in the tourism tax suit, which tended to be more subjective and less fact-driven.
How long will it all take?
Litigation is not a speedy process, Mai said, and he anticipates the ordeal to last anywhere from three to ten years, depending on if it goes to trial or settles out of court.
If the county wins-, the money left over after attorney fees will be deposed into the county’s General Fund, Mai said.
County commissioners will then be responsible for how that money is spent.
“It would then be up to them to decide what would be the appropriate use for that money, whether it would go toward potential treatment centers, the cost of the jail, or more law enforcement,” Mai said.
Latest federal, state responses to opioid crisis
Responses to the opioid crisis are taking place at all levels of government.
Last month, President Donald Trump signed a spending plan that included $4.6 billion to fight the national opioid crisis. It was one of the few inclusions on the total $1.3 trillion budget appropriation that received bi-partisan support.
State lawmakers also weighed in on the issue during the recent legislative session.
A new law signed by Gov. Rick Scott in March sets aside about $53 million, in addition to funds in the budget signed last month, which brings the total to about $65 million, for enhanced opioid treatment, law enforcement response and supply a life-saving overdose reversal drug to overdose victims via first responders.
The new law serves as Florida’s first piece of legislation to address the opioid epidemic.