PAINESVILLE, Ohio – Lake County’s commissioners voted to move forward with a plan to become the latest Northeast Ohio county to file a lawsuit against drug manufacturers and distributors amid an opioid epidemic that has wreaked havoc across the state.
The commissioners voted 3-0 at a meeting Tuesday to take steps toward finalizing a lawsuit to seek reimbursement for the money Lake County has spent on costs related to the opioid epidemic.
Those costs include investigations conducted by the sheriff’s office, medical treatment for inmates in the county’s jail and an increased burden on the county’s Department of Job and Family Services, Commissioner Jerry Cerino said.
“Our budget has been impacted significantly, and that’s really going to be the crux of our case,” Cerino said. “We believe we’ve already incurred a great deal of expenses, and we will continue to do so.”
Lake County Sheriff Daniel Dunlap, who is also a member of the county’s Opiate Task Force, said he supports litigation.
“I think these lawsuits have to happen,” he said. “I think the pharmaceutical companies have a role in this.”
Tuesday’s vote allowed the commissioners to move forward with a plan to hire outside attorneys to represent the county. The commissioners could finalize the hiring as soon as the next meeting on Dec. 14, and the lawsuit could be filed days later, Cerino said.
The commissioners plan to work with Cleveland firm Plevin and Gallucci, which is also serving as local counsel in a similar lawsuit against drug companies filed in Cuyahoga County. The law firm will work under a contingency arrangement, which means it would be paid a yet-to-be-decided percentage of any judgement in the case, Cerino said.
Cuyahoga County officials previously filed a lawsuit that accuses drug companies of intentionally misleading the public about the dangers of opioids to sell more painkillers; Summit County officials have also announced plans to file a similar suit. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine also filed over the summer against some of the same manufacturers.
A Cleveland federal judge will preside over 64 lawsuits filed by cities and counties across the country. Of the 64 cases, 16 originated from Ohio and include lawsuits filed by the cities of Cincinnati and Dayton. It also includes lawsuits filed by two Northeast Ohio cities, Parma and Lorain.
Officials nationwide have said prescription drug abuse is inextricably linked to heroin and fentanyl abuse, and the opioid epidemic that claimed thousands of lives last year in Ohio. In 2016, more than 4,050 people died of unintentional drug overdoses across the state, with many of those being caused by opioids.
Opioid overdose deaths nearly tripled last year in Lake County, statistics show. The coroner’s office attributed 72 deaths last year to heroin, fentanyl or a combination of the two drugs. That’s up from the 28 people killed by those drugs in 2015 and the 27 who died in 2014, the coroner’s office said.
Statistics show there were 77 drug overdose deaths in Lake County through Tuesday, but that total includes deaths caused by opioids and other drugs such as cocaine, the coroner’s office said.
The Lake County Sheriff’s Office is devoting more resources to investigating drug overdose deaths, and it spent $125,000 to buy a body scanner to prevent inmates from smuggling drugs into the county’s jail, Dunlap said.
Dunlap said the sheriff’s office has also seen an uptick in drug-related crimes such as armed robberies.
“It’s been very time-consuming,” Dunlap said. ‘We’re devoting a lot of time to these [drug-related] investigations.”
Lake County officials feel the opioid epidemic may worsen before things improve, Cerino said. The commissioners surveyed the heads of the county’s offices that are impacted by the epidemic, and each respondent believes the problem is getting worse, Cerino said.
“We’re not folks who rush into litigation lightly,” he said. “But we have been dealing with the results of this opioid epidemic in a variety of areas.”
Lake County is trying to address the opioid epidemic in other ways outside of the planned lawsuit. The sheriff’s department and the Lake County Opiate Task Force are focusing on law enforcement, and the county’s Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) Board is among the agencies offering treatment and rehabilitation, Cerino said.
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