WINCHESTER — City Council tonight will open discussions on ways Winchester could use potential monetary awards from a class-action lawsuit filed against America's opioid manufacturers.

While the litigation is still pending against several major pharmaceutical companies accused of fueling increases in opioid addiction across the United States, a proposed settlement in the case could leave Winchester with thousands of dollars to help offset the money already spent by the city on health care, social services, police enforcement, incarceration and other public service costs due to the abuse of narcotics.

The New York-based law firm of Sanford Heisler Sharp teamed with two other firms, Kaufman and Canoles of Virginia and the Cicala Law Firm of Texas, to represent a total of 133 Virginia cities and counties in the case against drug manufacturers and distributors Johnson and Johnson, Purdue Pharma, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, Endo International PLC, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and McKesson Corp.

The companies are accused of facilitating the over-prescription of pain medications, leading some people to become addicted and, when their prescriptions ran out, turning to heroin and other illegally obtained opioids.

On June 26, 2018, City Council agreed to let the law firms compile a report to determine how much money Winchester had spent at that time related to opioid abuse. While no dollar amount was ever determined, officials learned costs were significant enough to warrant the city's participation in the class-action suit.

Sanford Heisler Sharp is serving as Winchester's legal counsel in the lawsuit. It and the other two legal firms would collect 25% of any money awarded by a court, but the participating localities were not asked to pay any legal fees up front.

If there is a financial award, the goal is for the localities to use the cash to treat, reduce and prevent opioid abuse. The final decision on how Winchester allocates its money would be up to City Council.

A document provided to council last week by City Attorney Melisa G. Michelsen states the parties involved in the lawsuit are currently discussing a settlement.

According to Michelsen, the lawsuit seeks damages from the pharmaceutical companies and the creation of a fund that would be solely dedicated to treating and reducing opioid addiction. All 133 of the participating cities and counties in Virginia would share in 15% of the total settlement and 15% of an Opioid Abatement Fund, with distribution amounts based on population and how much each municipality has been financially impacted by the opioid epidemic.

According to terms of the proposed settlement, Winchester would receive 0.649% of the distributed settlement and abatement fund.

"For example," Michelsen wrote, "if the settlement is net $10,000,000 (after all costs), all localities will get $1,500,000 for general use, [of which] Winchester will get $97,350 for general use; and the Opioid Abatement Fund will receive $7,000,000, of which all localities will receive $1,050,000 and Winchester will receive $68,145 for opioid abatement use."

Other local communities participating in the class-action suit and the percentages they could be awarded include Frederick County (1.277%), Clarke County (0.125%), Shenandoah County (0.660%) and Warren County (0.766%).

The largest award percentage (8.672%) would go to Fairfax County in Northern Virginia, and the smallest (0.023%) would go to rural Highland County in the southern Shenandoah Valley, which, with a total population of about 2,200, is the least-populated jurisdiction in Virginia.

The law firms who brought the class-action lawsuit against the pharmaceutical companies are asking the governing bodies of all 133 participating localities to vote on whether they will accept the disbursement percentages. If so, the proposed settlement will formally be submitted for a judge's ruling.

City Council is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. today in Rouss City Hall. The meeting will also be streamed live at winchesterva.civicweb.net.

— Contact Brian Brehm at bbrehm@winchesterstar.com

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