Lawyers competing to represent Madison County in lucrative contingency fee litigation against manufacturers and distributors of opioid drugs touted their experience to members of the Judiciary Committee meeting on Friday.
Paul Hanly of New York, a partner at Alton-based Simmons Hanly Conroy, said, "We believe we can assist in the recovery of substantial amounts of money for your county" due to a conspiracy that resulted in the "over-proliferation" of drugs in the community.
Hanly said his firm currently represents 100 counties across the country in litigation that seeks to recover costs that addiction imposes on public entities - such as law enforcement, courts and medical providers. His firm essentially handles approximately one third of all litigation filed to date. He said he expects the number to reach 1,000 counties within a year.
In 2003, Hanly said his firm began suing Purdue Pharma over misrepresenting the risks of its narcotic OxyContin. He said his firm "discovered criminality" which it passed on to the U.S. Department of Justice that in turn led to the federal government's $634 million fine against the company and its executives.
"Apparently, that didn't dissuade them," he said.
Hanly said he counsels clients that if "you don't sue, you don't get to participate."
"History teaches us in mass pharmaceutical cases that if you are not a participant that the likelihood you will have a seat at the table when the money gets distributed is remote," he said.
Former Madison County chief judge Ann Callis, now in private practice at Goldenberg Heller in Edwardsville, said her firm already represents 15 local governments in Illinois, including counties of St. Clair, Bond, Jersey and the city of Granite City.
She said the legal theories her firm would advance would include racketeering and public nuisance claims.
As a former chief judge she said she implemented civil reforms in Madison County - one being a requirement that legal filings could not be filed under seal - and therefore she "would never sign on to a lawsuit that was remotely frivolous," she said.
"Everything would be transparent," she said, including the law firm's contract with the county. "Everything is negotiable...that's what I love about this lawsuit."
She said she believes her purpose in life is to help people.
"I believe in this lawsuit," she said. "I can ensure people in this room and the citizens that I would fight for them in this lawsuit. As your attorney I would fight for you."
Committee chair Mike Walters said he would like to be able to hear from representatives of the pharmaceutical industry and doctors, saying that there are "bad apples" in every walk of life and that his committee should be "real careful" about not confusing good ones from bad ones.
He said that once his committee has heard from "everyone," he will look at options and proceed accordingly.
"If we do proceed with the lawsuit, it will come out of our committee," he said. "I am not sure how we choose a law firm and how to negotiate the contingency fees. If we do not proceed with the lawsuit, I am not sure what (State's Attorney) Tom (Gibbons) will do."
He also said that he doesn't want to see a problem that has happened with asbestos litigation be repeated in opioid litigation, where many of the original asbestos producers and distributors are "all out of business."
"Who pays now is mom and pop shops, who didn't have anything to do with it in the minds of many," he said. "I'm fearful that if we start with pharmaceuticals then it's doctors, then pharmacist companies, then Walgreen and CVS. That's a fear I have."
Troy attorney Don Weber, a former Madison County circuit judge and state's attorney, spoke at the end of the hearing criticizing the contingency fee arrangement by saying the lawyers stand to gain much more than individual counties when attorney fees recovered are one-third of the total.
By using an example raised by Hanly in the $634 million fine against Purdue Pharm, he said that if 1,000 counties were to reach a $600 million opioid settlement that would mean $200 million to lawyers and $400 million to counties. But each county would end up with $400,000. He said that even if counties recovered $2 million apiece in settlement, lawyers would get more than $600 million.
He said the "whole thing" has been politicized.
"I'm not saying there isn't an opioid epidemic," he said. ."I'm saying the main problem is the drug dealers... with a really strong (prosecution) program we would be sending them all to prison."
He said that no firm should be hired that has been a major contributor to either political party, which would exclude the Goldenberg and Simmons' firms.
"If they really feel this is such a serious problem they should just donate their time or limit their total fee to $100,000...and have the rest come back to the county."
Gibbons, who participated in the hearing, responded to Weber that he "looked forward" to Weber's firm's proposal with those kind of terms.