Fort Smith is joining other Arkansas cities in a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors after a Tuesday vote by the city's Board of Directors.
The city is simultaneously joining the Arkansas Municipal League's legal defense program. At a cost of $107,761 for a year, the city will have access to lawyers and a "pot of money should things go badly" that it can use for litigation costs, Director of Legal Services Mark Hayes said at the board's meeting. The program will cover costs that add up when there's a lawsuit, such as depositions, transcripts, expert witnesses or travel. The city will continue to use Fort Smith law firm Daily & Woods for day-to-day legal services such as reviewing contracts or drafting ordinances and may still use its attorneys for lawsuits.
Cities typically use the program for "big-ticket items" such as lawsuits involving police, employment, taxation or land use, Hayes said by phone.
About 440 cities are a part of the legal defense program. About 100 of those cities, including Fort Smith, are joining the lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors, although that number is growing, Hayes said. The Municipal League defense program, health benefit fund and workers compensation trust as well as the Arkansas Public Entities Risk Management Association and the Association of Arkansas Counties are coming together to sue entities that make and distribute opioids, in light of the epidemic — Arkansas is second in the nation for number of prescriptions per 100 people. A federal lawsuit has been filed, and a state lawsuit is planned to be filed by the end of January or in February, Hayes said. It's unclear whether Fort Smith will have a role in the federal lawsuit that has already been filed.
"There is no intent to sue local doctors," Hayes said at the meeting.
A goal of the lawsuit is for the manufacturers and distributors to pay money directly to cities, Hayes said by phone. Additionally, they would pay for programs designed to combat opioid addiction. Hayes gave some examples of how local governments are directly affected by the increase in opioid addiction. Police officers and firefighters often carry emergency medications to treat people who have overdosed.
"They didn't have to do that before," he said, adding that those medications cost money and cities use their resources to train first responders on how to use them. More opioid-related emergencies also mean more local resources going to the problem. People who have been addicted may need years of treatment.
The directors passed two resolutions — one to take part in the legal defense program and one to take part in the opioid litigation — each with a 6-1 vote with Ward 4 Director George Catsavis opposed.