Opioid Tablets (copy)

Opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen pills. File/AP

As the costs of the opioid epidemic mount, some of the state's heaviest-hitting law firms have come to county councils with a pitch.

Attorneys are serving up the possibility of winning counties some of their money back by suing manufacturers and distributors. And most of the lawyers won't be paid unless they win. 

Some attorneys are arguing to county governments that filing in state court is best, while others are advising they should join nearly 900 plaintiffs in a merged federal suit in Ohio.

Either way, at least 34 of South Carolina's 46 counties have taken the bait. A handful have signed contracts with New York attorney Marc Bern but have yet to file suit.

Among those that haven't: Richland County, Berkeley County, Georgetown County and Charleston County, where overdose deaths are second-highest in the state. 

Suits against manufacturers over the opioid crisis date back to 2014, when two California counties filed. It is only recently heating up in South Carolina, though: More than 20 counties here have filed this year.

Some councils might hesitate out of concerns that the discovery process could be costly or time-consuming for their staff. Some might have higher priorities.

John DeLoache, attorney for the S.C. Association of Counties, said the organization is keeping track of those that have filed lawsuits.

It is impossible to say at this point which track could yield a better settlement, he said. Those that haven't filed may be wary of a long and difficult discovery process, he said.

"A lot of the process is both time consuming, and can be daunting," DeLoache said. "Frankly, a lot of counties just have a lot more immediate problems that they have to take care of."

But Joe Rice, co-lead counsel on the litigation, said attorneys for the plaintiffs there have about 5 million pages of information already at their disposal. Depositions are underway. The cases in federal court are slated to be heard no sooner than 2019. More South Carolina counties — about 30 — have opted to file in state court.

Rice said it may not matter where the cases are filed because the settlement amount could end up being uniform. He speaks from experience successfully settling with the tobacco industry for $246 billion in 1998. The cases are similar in that they're using the legal system to address a public health issue, Rice said. 

"This court has made it very clear that this case is addressing a national health epidemic and it needs a uniform effort," he said.

As of June 15, 895 actions across the country had been filed through federal court.

It is in the counties' best interest to file sooner than later if they're going to do so, Rice said.

The costs of the opioid epidemic span sectors. A Hospital Industry Data Institute report put South Carolina's total economic costs at $8.4 billion in 2016, or 4 percent of the state's gross domestic product. Most of those costs were attributed to overdose deaths. 

Hospitals saw nearly 7,000 overdoses across the state in 2016, according to the Department of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services. Each of those overdoses can have a sticker price of about $6,000, Modern Healthcare reported

The county with the most deaths from overdose of that group is easily Charleston, with 65 in 2016, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control. Charleston County's deaths were second only to Horry's; that county filed in federal court in February.

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"Charleston is continuing to evaluate the possibilities that we may have to participate in the recovery of opioid expenses," Vic Rawl, chairman of Charleston County Council, said.

The last mention of the litigation in council's public minutes, however, was in January. Then, Rawl asked the county attorney for an update "perhaps in executive session" about the possibility of joining litigation. 

Shawn Smetana, spokesman for the county, said only "at the time it wasn't in the best interests of Charleston County government."

Rawl declined to elaborate. 

Richland County Council members voted on June 5 to have a law firm explore the matter more in-depth, according to council minutes. 

Joyce Dickerson, council chairwoman, did not respond to phone calls and an email Thursday and Friday.

Sara Goldsby, director of the Department of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services, said she hopes the lawsuits will set a precedent for the pharmaceutical industry and give them pause before marketing potentially addictive prescriptions.

She said she supports the counties' suits, especially if it ultimately helps to pay for cleanup of the crisis.

"I think that any pursuit of justice is worthwhile," she said.

The cases being filed in state court, for their part, have attracted dozens of lawyers to the state's courtrooms. In Greenville County's case, filed March 5, 26 lawyers are on the docket, most of them for the defense. There, a judge decided in May that the case could stay in Greenville County court. Lawyers for those counties prefer their cases be heard in front of local juries. 

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.