New law on opioid epidemic to go before Legislature

A local law declaring the opioid epidemic and its effects a “public nuisance” will go before the full County Legislature next week.

The law, which will go before the Audit and Control Committee this morning, was introduced by County Attorney Steve Abdella at the Human Services Committee meeting on Wednesday. Abdella said the law is related to an “upcoming lawsuit” the county will be a part of against pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and market opioids to the public.

Abdella said the county obtained outside counsel, who advised the county to pass the local law declaring the epidemic a public nuisance; the law would also create a cost recovery procedure to recoup some of the costs incurred by the county due to the opioid epidemic.

“They have advised us and recommended to bolster our ongoing action that we and the other counties adopt this local law,” Abdella said.

In August 2017, the legislature unanimously approved a resolution that authorized litigation against drug companies to recover damages. Similar lawsuits were filed by other counties against pharmaceutical manufacturers including Purdue, Endo and Cephalon for their alleged role in misleading doctors and others regarding how addictive certain prescription painkillers were. The damages being sought include costs for social and health services, as well as policing that were incurred by counties as a result of the epidemic.

A similar lawsuit that ended in a settlement occurred against tobacco companies in 1998.

In the purpose and intent section of the law, the language spells out that part of the opioid crisis is due to the “overabundance of prescription opioids.”

“Vast amounts of prescription opioids were sold, distributed and prescribed in the county over the past several years, a practice that continues today,” the law reads. “The selling, distributing and prescribing of large amounts of opioids in our community has created a public health and safety hazard affecting the residents of the county.”

The proposed legislation would allow the county to recover costs, despite the free public services doctrine, and would allow the county to seek reimbursement for the costs from the responsible party. The proposed law defines the “responsible party” as the person or corporation whose “negligent, intentional or otherwise wrongful conduct” caused the incident or issue that resulted in costs incurred by the county or whoever is found liable or made responsible for the costs of the county by a court.

The proposed law states that if the “responsible party” fails to pay the costs, the county can initiate and recover costs through administrative, civil or criminal action, which would also include attorney’s fees, interest or any other payment or type of damages.

The proposed law, if approved, would apply retroactively.

The local law is dependent on the approval the full legislature next week. The legislature meets on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Gerace Office Building on the third floor.