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McLean County Moves Closer To Opioid Lawsuit Against Drugmakers, Distributors

Woman standing inside Bone Student Center with international flag in the background
Colleen Reynolds
McLean County is considering hiring Melissa Sims to represent it in a lawsuit over the opioid epidemic.

McLean County could soon join thousands of other local governments across the country that have sued drugmakers and distributors for their role in the opioid epidemic.

State’s Attorney Don Knapp has proposed hiring outside counsel to file suit in federal court in eastern Ohio, where other litigation is already underway. The goal would be to recoup some of McLean County’s costs associated with combatting the opioid epidemic, including buying doses of the overdose-antidote Narcan for first responders. Every Narcan kit costs around $1,000 each, Knapp said.

“If we get back even between $5,000 and $25,000, that’s five to 25 new Narcan kits,” he said.

Knapp and his predecessor, now-Judge Jason Chambers, have been considering a lawsuit for nearly two years. If the McLean County Board signs off, Knapp would hire outside counsel Melissa Sims to oversee the lawsuit. Sims, who has offices in Chicago and Princeton, attended a 2017 event in Normal focused on the opioid crisis. She raised the possibility of a lawsuit at that time.

Sims would be paid only if the county gets money from an award or settlement—a so-called contingent fee arrangement. Sims would get up to 25% of any amount collected, Knapp said.

Knapp said he’s been “very deliberate” in deciding whether to pursue a lawsuit, as drugmakers and distributors are legally entitled to make and move their own products. He said he became convinced to sue in part by preliminary data obtained by Sims from the state, showing a surge in opioid prescriptions in McLean County during the height of the epidemic. He said it’s clear manufacturers and distributors were not properly flagging and stopping “suspicious orders.”

“That certainly suggests to me, based on the sheer number, that controls were not in place,” he said.

McLean County drug overdoses spiked in 2017, with 40 deaths.

To get access to more complete data showing local opioid prescriptions, McLean County has to sue, Knapp said. That’s because of a judge’s order related to the litigation in Ohio.

Knapp is asking the McLean County Board to approve a resolution that would declare the opioid epidemic a public nuisance and to approve hiring Sims as outside counsel. If that happens, the lawsuit could be filed within a month.

Last month, attorneys for local governments across the country unveiled a plan that they say would move the nation closer to a global settlement of lawsuits stemming from the deadly opioid crisis.

The framework, which attorneys filed in federal court in Ohio and still needs approval by the court, could help more than 24,000 communities across the U.S. fight the opioid crisis.

Final payouts could rival the massive tobacco settlements of the 1990s.

Opioid Lawsuit Full Segment

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Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.