Kandiyohi County weighs opioid lawsuit

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WILLMAR — Kandiyohi County is weighing whether to join other Minnesota counties in suing drug manufacturers and distributors for their role in the mounting opioid crisis across the United States.

County Attorney Shane Baker raised the issue Wednesday in what's likely to be the first of many conversations with the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners.

"Ultimately it will be your policy decision," Baker told the board.

If Kandiyohi County decides to go ahead, it will join a growing number of Minnesota counties that are pursuing litigation to recoup public costs stemming from opioid misuse. Some are filing individual lawsuits while others are joining class-action suits in federal court.

The human toll has been rising, Baker said Wednesday.

Drug overdose deaths in Minnesota increased 9.2 percent from 2015 to 2016 and have gone up six-fold since 2000, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. There were 376 opioid-related deaths last year, nearly half involving prescription drugs such as oxycodone or hydrocodone.

"Each one of those cases is a tragedy," Baker said.

The cost to the public ranges from law enforcement and human services to out-of-home placement for children whose families are swept up in the opioid epidemic.

Lawsuits being filed across the U.S. allege numerous wrongdoings: deceptive marketing practices, consumer fraud and false advertising that downplay the drugs' addictive qualities and negligently allow the distribution of large quantities.

Any of these could form the basis of a lawsuit by Kandiyohi County, Baker said.

The first step, he suggested, is to collect information from county departments and analyze the data to help determine if litigation "is right for Kandiyohi County."

Some Minnesota counties and cities already filed suit in order to meet the deadline for a federal hearing last week in Missouri. But there's no specific time frame for Kandiyohi County to decide, Baker said.

The County Commissioners gave indications Wednesday that it's not likely to be a straightforward decision.

They wondered how well the local cost of opioid misuse can be measured and whether a lawsuit would yield a return to the taxpayers. They also questioned whether litigation would hold mostly symbolic value.

"How much difference are we going to make?" Commissioner Harlan Madsen wondered.

At the same time, board members said they recognize the cost to society of the opioid crisis.

Madsen called it "a scourge."

It's important to continue talking about it, he said. "Each of us has a significant role to play in the overall total solution that will not happen overnight."

Commissioner Jim Butterfield said he personally knows of three opioid overdose deaths within the past few years. "Doing nothing is not an option," he said.

Kandiyohi County owes it to the public to give thoughtful consideration to a lawsuit, he said. "That'll send a message to the manufacturers that we are serious," he said.