Española Considers Opioid Crisis Lawsuit

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Police Chief Louis Carlos and EMTs respond to nonfatal overdose 6-8-18

Former Española police chief Louis Carlos (left) speaks with medics as they help a man inside an ambulance who, according to dispatch logs, appeared to be overdosing, June 8, 2018 on North Riverside Drive. Carlos said the man appeared to be overdosing on heroin and that he would be OK.

Española may soon be financially compensated for the widespread damages of opioid addiction in the community.

Albuquerque lawyer Luis Robles pitched the opportunity to join a multidistrict litigation, similar to a class action suit, against opioid manufacturers and distributors to the City Council at its June 25 meeting.

New Mexico Department of Health data shows Rio Arriba County has the highest rate of fatal drug overdoses in the state.

In 2013 to 2017 data, at 89.9 overdose deaths per 100,000 people, the County had twice the fatality rate of the next highest counties, Guadalupe and San Miguel. Most U.S. overdose deaths are from opioids, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“With slick marketing and made up research, doctors were conned into believing that so long as opioids were prescribed as the manufacturer suggested, there was no addiction risk,” Robles said.

city robles opioid litigation pitch

Luis Robles (left) told the City Council ongoing opioid litigation is among the largest legal disputes in American history, on par with Big Tobacco and asbestos lawsuits. Julio Garcias (right), a new lawyer with his firm, attended to observe.

The effects of heroin are included in these lawsuits, along with prescription opioids like Oxycontin and Hydrocodone. If successful, the litigation could see thousands of governmental bodies nationwide compensated for the economic impact of opioid abuse, addiction, and overdose in their communities.

One way the courts could calculate how much money is awarded to the plaintiffs would be the ratio of population to opioid addictions and deaths. Española Hospital’s service to the surrounding area could inflate this ratio for the city. Overdose deaths at the hospital of people from communities outside Española may still count toward the city’s damages.

Robles said if the city government does not receive a settlement or judgement, it would face no fees. Prior to the lawsuit, relevant city departments would have to gather existing data to determine the scope of the financial impact of opioids on the city.

“As long as you start early enough it’s something that is manageable,” Robles said. “Governmental entities much smaller than you have done that readily.”

Councilor Peggy Sue Martinez said she has seen the detrimental effects of opioids in her district, once finding a discarded empty bottle for 500 oxycontin pills with nine refills.

“Opioid addiction in this community is rampant,” she said. “It’s something that is determining quality of life for a lot of people here.”

Robles’ law firm, Robles, Rael, and Anaya, is not the only option for legal representation if the city opts to join the case. City Attorney A.J. Salazar recommended that the choice of representation be discussed in closed session at the City Council’s next meeting on July 9. It could then be up for a vote July 23 at the following meeting.

The firm represents the state of New Mexico, 14 counties and three cities.

The case is being tried in an Ohio District Court, one of the states hit hardest by the opioid crisis. A smaller-scale suit by the state of Oklahoma is moving ahead more quickly and setting precedent for one of the largest legal disputes the country has seen. Two pharmaceutical companies so far have settled with the state for a total of $355 million.

Robles said Socorro County published a Request for Proposal, a process by which a government is required to allow contractors to bid for a requested service, for six counties, on which other local governments have piggybacked.

Robles’ firm won the bidding process. He said Española would be able to skip the Request for Proposal process and instead piggyback on the established contract used by other entities. The Socorro County Request for Proposal includes a clause supporting this claim.

Under the Socorro County contract, the attorneys collect 25 percent of the total money recovered from any settlement or ruling awarded to the County.

(1) comment

Jan Ryan

" Two pharmaceutical companies so far have settled with the state for a total of $355 million" Attorneys collect 25%.Are there programs funded by the settlements? Do they have any kind of success rate? We would like to see some no-longer-an-addict for the money, not like Phillip Seymour Hoffman relapse.

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