The legal front widening against makers of opioid painkillers has something in common with landmark tobacco litigation of the 1990s: attorney Mike Moore.
As Mississippi’s attorney general in 1994, Mr. Moore filed the first state lawsuit against tobacco companies, saying they harmed public-health systems by misrepresenting smoking’s dangers. He helped marshal the subsequent spate of state litigation and then the talks that led to a $246 billion settlement.
Now Mr. Moore is a private attorney encouraging states to sue pharmaceutical companies, alleging they helped spark an addiction crisis by misrepresenting the benefits and addiction risks of opioid painkillers.
Mr. Moore pressed Mississippi and Ohio to sue drugmakers and is helping them with the suits they have since filed. The affable 65-year-old is tapping coalition-building skills he honed in the tobacco litigation to urge other states to sue, too. Recently two additional states, Missouri and Oklahoma, filed suits.
“When he’s motivated, you don’t want to be on the other side,” said James Tierney, a former Maine attorney general who later worked with Mr. Moore during the tobacco wars.
Mr. Moore is among many tort lawyers flocking to help government bodies seek damages from makers of opioid painkillers. More than a dozen cities and counties are suing, in addition to the four states, assisted by outside attorneys who include Paul Hanly Jr. of Alton, Ill.-based Simmons Hanly Conroy LLC and Linda Singer and Joe Rice of Motley Rice LLC, based in Mount Pleasant, S.C.
Like Mr. Moore, Mr. Rice has strong ties to the tobacco litigation, having been outside counsel to two dozen states and a lead negotiator in the settlement talks. Mr. Rice said he expects attorneys helping with opioid litigation to stay in close touch with each other, just as in the tobacco suits. In many cases they stand to win up to 25% of settlements or judgments.
Government bodies’ use of outside lawyers to sue for damages is criticized by the suits’ targets and by some conservative voices in the legal profession, who say the states are improperly outsourcing law-enforcement powers to firms that have a profit motive.
In New Hampshire, where the state hired an outside law firm to help investigate opioid marketing and potentially pursue litigation, the targeted companies filed a court challenge to the firm’s involvement, saying the contingent-fee arrangement “tainted” the investigation. The state’s supreme court last month rejected that challenge, allowing the law firm to keep working.
Attorneys general who use outside lawyers say a contingent-fee arrangement can help them pursue worthwhile litigation they haven’t the resources to mount alone. In most such arrangements, outside law firms bear the cost of the litigation and are paid only if it succeeds.
More than 300,000 Americans have died of opioid overdoses since the late 1990s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many public-health officials maintain that aggressive pharmaceutical-company marketing and lax prescribing helped cause addiction that for many people progressed to heroin and other illicit drugs.
READ MORE: Lawyers Hope to Do to Opioid Makers What They Did to Big Tobacco (WSJ: Subscription Required)