PORTAGE — If the Wisconsin Counties Association ever sues the pharmaceutical industry to recover government bodies’ costs for addressing opioid addiction, Columbia County could join in the lawsuit, at no cost to the county.
The County Board’s Executive Committee on Monday voted unanimously in favor of a resolution to engage a Milwaukee-based law firm for the suit.
Corporation Counsel Joseph Ruf compared the proposed lawsuit — broached at the Counties Association’s annual conference, which ran from Sept. 24-26 at the Kalahari Resort and Convention Center in Wisconsin Dells — to a suit about 20 years ago against the tobacco industry, in which the industry and state governments reached a $206 billion settlement. Wisconsin sold its share of the settlement, $5.9 billion, in exchange for an immediate payout of $1.3 billion. About $450 million of that was used to balance the state budget.
The resolution requires the approval of the full County Board.
The Counties Association is asking all 72 counties to join the suit, and some already have, Ruf said.
Similar committees in Sauk and Dodge counties already have approved the measure, which still requires full board approval there.
The resolution calls for engaging the law firm of von Briesen and Roper, which is based in Milwaukee but has offices in several other Wisconsin cities.
The thinking behind suing the pharmaceutical industry, according to Ruf, is that the industry bears some responsibility for the widespread addiction to opium-based drugs. Many of these addictions start with prescription painkillers.
“They made these drugs. They made lots of these drugs. They made money on these drugs,” Ruf said.
Some of the costs that counties bear as a direct result of the opioid addiction epidemic, he said, include law enforcement, jail operation and programs such as Columbia County’s medication-assisted treatment program and its new drug court.
Committee member Kirk Konkel of Portage had numerous questions, the first of which was addressed — whether the county would be responsible for paying the lawyers up front.
“I don’t know of any law firms that work for nothing,” he said.
Ruf said the von Briesen firm would handle the case on a contingency basis, with no participating counties paying any upfront fees. Then, the law firm would get 35 percent of whatever settlement or judgment results from the suit, plus expenses.
Whatever money is left would be divided among participating counties, Ruf said — but it’s highly likely that the division would not be even, and that metropolitan counties would get larger portions of the suit’s proceeds because they would be able to establish their drug-related costs are higher.
But even if the suit is eventually filed, it could be years, even decades, before it’s resolved — meaning, Ruf said, that no county will see any money from the pharmaceutical companies anytime soon.