County hesitates to join lawsuit

Attorney General advises local entities to steer clear

Jill Schramm/MDN Ward County commissioners hear from the State’s Attorney’s Office about a request to join opioid litigation. From left are John Fjeldahl, Larry Louser, Alan Walter, Shelly Weppler and Jim Rostad.

Ward County commissioners weren’t inclined to jump at an invitation to join in litigation against opioid pharmaceutical companies Tuesday.

Desiring more information, the commission placed on hold a request from a group of private law firms to join a lawsuit. The request came to the commission through the county State’s Attorney’s Office. Some other counties in the state have received similar requests.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem applauded Ward County for its restraint. His office discourages counties and other entities from bringing their own legal actions because lawsuits entail costs that will reduce their awards and will simply replicate work the state already is doing.

The North Dakota Attorney General’s Office is part of a multi-state group of 40 attorneys generals involved in a settlement discussion with opioid manufacturers and distributors.

In May, the Attorney General’s Office was among other state attorney generals to sue Purdue Pharma for its role in the opioid epidemic in America, arguing Purdue knew the serious risks of long-term opioid use and minimized or ignored evidence. Connecticut-based Purdue, which has denied the accusation, is one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of prescription opioids, including OxyContin.

“We are continuing our investigation and inquiry to add additional defendants if we can’t reach a settlement,” Stenehjem said Tuesday. “What I am committed to doing is making sure that any recovery that we obtain is used to enhance our treatment options in North Dakota. We are woefully short on treatment for people who are addicted to opioids and other substances. We need treatment options that are statewide.”

He added the attorney general is suing in part based on consumer fraud, which only the state has the ability to enforce. Without that enforcement tool, counties will have a more difficult time in a lawsuit, he said.

The Attorney General’s Office has sent a letters to some counties and cities that have been approached by private attorneys, letting them know they need not hire their own counsel on the opioid issue.

“They do not need to do this to join the state effort. It really only hampers our ability,” Stenehjem said.