The Bexar County Commissioners Court on Tuesday, February 7th.
The Bexar County Commissioners Court. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The City of San Antonio is considering whether to join Bexar County in suing opioid drug manufacturers and distributors that it blames for an addiction epidemic that has been devastating locally.

The City Attorney’s Office is reviewing proposals from area law firms to determine whether to sue, City of San Antonio Public Affairs Manager Thea Setterbo said in an email to the Rivard Report. 

The City also could decide to use the City Attorney, rather than an outside firm, to take action against opioid manufacturers and distributors, said Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), adding that the City is being cautious in deciding whether to take legal action.

“No one should ever take litigation casually,” Pelaez, a labor and employment attorney by trade, told the Rivard Report on Monday. “There is not a ‘one size fits all’ for mass tort litigation. I would rather get it right than get it quick.”

Last October, County commissioners voted to sue the companies with the provision that any proceeds granted to the County go directly to treatment and research to help area residents who struggle with opioid addiction.

County Judge Nelson Wolff said during Commissioners Court on Oct. 3, 2017 that filing the lawsuit against the opioid industry is comparable to lawsuits filed against the tobacco industry several years ago, but that opioids addictions are “much more insidious and much more dangerous than smoking.”

Wolff said “many counties and cities have entered this litigation across the nation,” and that several states, including Texas, have been completing investigations into opioid marketing, sales, and prescriptions. Many of those lawsuits ended in “executives being indicted and charged,” he added.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton joined a coalition of 40 states last year that served investigative subpoenas and other requests to eight companies that either manufacture or distribute prescription opioids.

There has been broad and consistent support for cities and municipalities interested in pursuing damages from opioid distributors and manufacturers, including the U.S. Department of Justice, which, on Feb. 27, said it will support local officials in hundreds of lawsuits against manufacturers and distributors of powerful opioid painkillers that are fueling the nation’s drug abuse crisis.

As the County moves forward with support from the DOJ, the City is still working to determine next steps.

Pelaez explained that in order to file a lawsuit or join existing litigation, the City must decide whether it should proceed “in house” through the city attorney or “farm it out” to an external firm. But first, he said, the City should determine what it has to gain from pursuing the lawsuit.

Councilman Manny Peláez (D8)
Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“It’s not like this would be zero-cost litigation,” Pelaez said, referring to the legal fees associated with filing and fighting a case, regardless of whether the lawyer is a City employee.

District Attorney Nico LaHood chose two San Antonio firms to represent Bexar County in the county’s lawsuit: Phipps Anderson Deacon and Watts Guerra.

Mikal Watts, lawyer with Watts Guerra, said local lawyers are filing lawsuits in both state and federal court on behalf of the County.

“Opioids are the biggest epidemic in the country right now,” said Watts, who represents 12 other counties in Texas filing lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors. “I wouldn’t have gotten into this if I didn’t think we would be successful.”

Bexar County leads the state in babies born with drug withdrawal symptoms and has the third-highest per-capita rate of overdose deaths in Texas, with 108 fatal overdoses in 2015.

“Bexar County has a large volume of different kinds of expenses that it has withstood as a result of the opioid epidemic and we aim to recover those,” Watts said, noting that the County plans to argue it has borne the costs of the crisis through its jail, University Health System, and Center for Health Care Services.

Watts explained that the lawyers are waiting to see how the remand process goes before committing the County to either federal or state court.

Pelaez agrees that the City should wait to see what comes of lawsuits filed in other cities and municipalities across the United States, before moving forward with its own lawsuit.

“Some of these lawsuits may not survive,” Pelaez said, noting that drug manufacturers and distributors have already been fighting back against these types of lawsuits across the country. “There is an advantage [in] waiting to see whether or not they have the ability to withstand the initial challenges.”

Companies affected by lawsuits in Texas include, but are not limited to, Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Cephalon, Johnson & Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceutical Company, Allergan, Actavis, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Cardinal Health, McKesson Corporation, AmerisourceBergen Corporation, and all other related entities to these named companies.

Emails and calls to several companies seeking comments for this article went unanswered Monday.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.