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Clark County, Reno prepare to move forward with opioid lawsuits, despite warnings from AG

Riley Snyder
Riley Snyder
Local Government
Clark County Government Center

At least two Nevada localities are preparing to move forward with lawsuits against major opioid manufacturers and distributors, despite continued opposition by Attorney General Adam Laxalt.

Both Clark County and the City of Reno have scheduled hearings and potential votes this week on whether to retain private law firms to pursue lawsuits against opioid manufacturers, even as Laxalt’s office has engaged in a multi-state suit and warned Reno officials that a separate suit could jeopardize the state’s chances of emerging with a significant stake in a potentially large global settlement.

Democratic Clark County Commissioners Steve Sisolak and Chris Giunchigliani, both of whom are running for governor, as is Republican Laxalt, jointly requested an agenda item during Tuesday’s meeting to authorize legal action against opioid drug manufacturers, through the private firm of Eglet Prince.

Sisolak said he (without Giunchigliani) met with private attorney Peter Wetherall — who presented on possible litigation against opioid companies to the city of Reno last month — but decided to go with Eglet Prince because of the firm’s history with complex medical cases, including a major suits involving Hepatitis C outbreaks in Las Vegas.

“These are pretty involved, intricate cases, so we want to hire somebody with the best chance to get a recovery for the county,” he said.

According to an agenda item, the firm — which counts Democratic state Senate majority leader and attorney general candidate Aaron Ford as a partner — has already “researched appropriate claims, potential damage claims, and requests for remedial measures for almost a year” and would be ready to file a suit immediately on behalf of the county. It notes the firm would take on all potential costs associated with the suit, and cap their stake in any potential damages or settlement at 25 percent. An Eglet Prince representative declined to comment on Tuesday.

The potential suit comes even as Laxalt warned Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve earlier in November that any additional litigation could “unintentionally undermine” Nevada’s involvement in a 41-state suit against opioid manufacturers and could “thwart” the state’s chances of receiving a future cash settlement.

Sisolak said that neither Eglet Prince nor District Attorney Steve Wolfson — who sat in on a meeting with Sisolak and the trial attorney firm — felt a suit filed by the county would be a concern for the state. A Laxalt spokeswoman didn’t return an email seeking comment.

Reno council members are also scheduled to discuss Wednesday a vote on a potential lawsuit — a priority for Schieve, who first detailed her desire to initiate legal action against opioid companies in October.

According to the agenda, city council members will discuss a potential agreement with the private attorney Peter Wetherall, who will be instructed to “pursue all civil remedies against the manufacturers of prescription opiates and those in the chain of distribution of prescription opiates responsible for the opioid epidemic which is harming” the city of Reno.

A background briefing for the city council members notes that no city-specific study shows the effects of opioid abuse, but noted that Nevada as a state has been hit hard by over-prescriptions and overdoses of opioid drugs.

The proposed agreement notes that Wetherall and any associate attorneys representing the city will be paid approximately 30 percent of any damages or monetary relief granted by a court, but notes “there is no reimbursement of litigation expenses if there is no recovery.” The agreement also states that the firm will compensate the city if it's ordered to pay legal fees for the defendants.

Despite that, Wetherall may not end up representing the city at all — in an open letter to the city council dated Dec. 4, the attorney said that proposals made by other law firms — Eglet Prince and Bradley, Drendel & Jeanney — had changed the equation, as his firm was now no longer the only offering legal representation to the city.

“Now that others have also expressed an interest in representing Reno, I think it only fair they be given a full and fair opportunity to compete for your business,” he said in a letter.

Wetherall suggested that council members approve moving forward with a lawsuit, but delay the decision on which firm to retain through a bid request.

Nevada has the fourth-highest drug overdose mortality rate, 20.7 per 100,000 residents in 2010, and the state’s doctors write 94 painkiller prescriptions for every 100 residents. The CDC counted 619 drug-overdose deaths in the state in 2015.

Disclosure: Steve Sisolak and Chris Giunchigliani have donated to The Nevada Independent ($1,000 and $450, respectively).

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