Duluth and Superior will join in the legal battle against the makers and distributors of opioid drugs.
The city councils for both jurisdictions voted Monday night to hire the same law firm, Keller Lenkner LLC, to represent them in the suit, seeking damages for a wave of addiction that has swept through the nation, saddling cities, counties and states with hefty response costs.
In all, about 1,400 local units of government have filed claims against the opioid drug industry to date, and Seth Meyer an attorney for Keller Lenkner, said that number continues to grow.
Duluth will join Minneapolis, becoming the second city in Minnesota to take on the cause. But Meyer expects more to follow, noting that his firm has had preliminary conversations with Rochester.
As of last week, Superior City Attorney Frog Prell said he knew of no other Wisconsin city pursuing a similar legal remedy yet.
"We view this as a national problem that requires a national solution," said Meyer, noting that his firm is in talks with communities around the nation.
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said her city has experienced a spike in demand for emergency services, with five overdose deaths in January alone.
The epidemic has spilled into the Duluth's public libraries and parks, as well, where staff have had to deal with people shooting up and clean up after them. Larson said receptacles designed for the safe disposal of sharps have been repeatedly broken into by people looking for needles, despite the serious health risks of reuse.
The city has had to hire security for the downtown Duluth Public Library and is redesigning the building's restrooms to make them easier to monitor at a cost of about $250,000.
"Our public library is of course a universal living room designed to serve everybody. The public library is an intersection, where we have so many people being in that space together, and we are seeing in some cases that we could be going from nursery reading time to administering Narcan," Larson said.
She said it's difficult to put a price tag on the costs the city of Duluth has already incurred as it deals with the opioid fallout.
"To me, it's just not right that companies are getting profits, while our people and community suffer," Larson said.
Duluth Assistant City Attorney Betsy Sellers said the local cases are on track to be heard with hundreds of others from around the country at a federal court in Ohio.
"This is complex litigation that requires specialized knowledge," she said.
Duluth and Superior are poised to sign retainers that would require them to cover certain costs, such as those related to expert testimony. But by and large Keller Lenkner would be taking the cases on contingency, laying claim to one-third of any award or settlement monies it obtains on its clients' behalf. The remaining two-thirds of any funds recovered would go entirely to the respective cities.
Superior Mayor Jim Paine thanked Duluth for working with his city to address the problem of opioid addiction.
"There are a number of people that we can still save from this crisis - those that have not been afflicted yet and those that are currently experiencing the affliction of this crisis - but I think we owe it to the people who have already been lost to provide some measure of justice from this irreparable harm that has happened to our community," he said.
Paine went on to say: "In pursuing litigation, we recognize that not only have we have been victimized but that there is a perpetrator, that somebody knew this would cause harm to our community, that this would do things that we would never recover from - that this would take human lives. But they did it anyway, and they did it for profit."