MARTINSBURG — Martinsburg City Council has voted against joining a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors.
On Dec. 14, the council voted 4-3 against a motion regarding the potential lawsuit. The motion was about hiring the Skinner Law Firm to represent the city in litigation against the companies “involved in the wrongful distribution of prescription pain pills, creating a public nuisance.”
This fall, attorney Stephen Skinner made a presentation before the council about filing such a lawsuit. The intent of the suit was to recoup money the city has used it dealing with the opioid epidemic.
Several West Virginia government entities have filed similar lawsuits in state and federal court. More than 100 such cases have been filed across the country, and most of them recently were made part of Multi District Litigation that will be heard in U.S. District Court in Cleveland. Skinner already is representing Berkeley County – where Martinsburg is located – and Jefferson County in similar suits. He also has made a similar presentation to the Morgan County Commission.
Councilman Gregg Wachtel said he voted against joining the lawsuit because he thinks the city can get better terms elsewhere.
“It’s not that I don’t want to join the lawsuit,” he told The West Virginia Record. “I just think we can do it ourselves in-house. I think Skinner’s firm is doing a good thing, but I think the city needs to be run like a business. And I think we can get a better deal.”
Skinner’s proposal was on a contingency basis. The city wouldn’t have had to pay until an award or settlement was reached. Skinner wanted 25 percent of any award plus expenses.
“A case like this against drug companies is going to drag on for a long time,” Wachtel said. “That’s a lot of travel, a lot of expenses and a lot of legal fees.”
Councilman Jason Baker told the Martinsburg Journal-News that he thinks this type of litigation isn’t good for the city.
“It causes the costs to go up on all citizens,” he said. “The drug companies don’t pay the bills. Pharmaceutical companies just raise their prices. That’s not making a change. You’re just passing along the buck.”
Councilwoman Harriet Johnson said her constituents didn’t want the city involved in the lawsuit.
“And because Berkeley County is in the lawsuit, and Martinsburg is in Berkeley County, so we will benefit from it,” she told the newspaper. “The Berkeley County Commission voted for it and I’ll go with what they get. If we join, we’ll cut the pie in more pieces and not get more. It’s overkill.”
Councilman Dennis Etherington said he voted against joining the suit because he doesn’t think a suit against drug companies won’t make the opioid problem disappear.
“It’s just my feelings, but I don’t think the pharmaceutical companies are to blame for the problems,” he told the Journal-News. “I spent 41 years in education. These people, you can call them addicts, are taught in school the dangers of drugs. They see on TV and in papers and hear it on the radio.
“They’re given warnings, and they don’t heed them. Suing pharmaceutical companies is not the answer.”
Councilman Mark Baker voted in favor of joining the suit.
“I think with the cost we’re putting out in police and ambulance expenses, we need to be paid for the services we’re rendering,” he told the newspaper. “But I’m not upset. I won’t lose any sleep over it.”
Councilman Ken Collinson voted yes, but told the Journal-News he is not in favor of lawsuits.
“But with the opioid situation, I felt it was an opportunity for the city to pursue at minimal cost,” Collinson said. “There’s no liability until there is an award or settlement.”
Skinner was out of the office and not available for comment.