James B. Matthews III, of Blasingame, Burch, Garrard & Ashley.

An Athens law firm that’s building a reputation in medical multidistrict litigation is weighing in on the opioid crisis and what one partner says is its outsized impact on Georgia’s rural hospitals and counties.

Attorneys with Blasingame Burch Garrard & Ashley have filed two federal suits in the Southern District of Georgia—one on behalf of rural Candler County and a second on behalf of the Candler County Hospital Authority—against some of the nation’s largest pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors. Partner James Matthews said the suits are among the first to be filed in Georgia seeking restitution for the millions of dollars expended by the state’s counties and hospitals to fight  the ravages of the opioid crisis.

On Wednesday, the firm filed a third identical suit on behalf of the Athens-Clarke County Consolidated Government. Athens is home to the University of Georgia.

Matthews said the suits are just the opening salvo in Georgia’s opioid litigation. The firm expects to file similar lawsuits in the coming weeks on behalf of other Georgia counties and hospitals that have been financially devastated by the opioid epidemic. Some of those hospitals may be forced to close.

Citing a 2017 white paper by the Substance Abuse Research Alliance, Matthews said Georgia ranks among the top 11 states with the highest number of prescription opioid deaths. According to the report, 55 of Georgia’s 159 counties had higher drug overdose rates than the 2014 national average. Of those counties, 60 percent are located in rural areas with limited access to substance abuse treatment programs.

Matthews said that, between 2009 and 2014, Georgia had a 100 percent increase in inpatient hospital stays related to opioid addiction—the largest increase in the nation. During the same period, the state was third nationally in the increase in emergency room visits associated with opioids. Candler County is one of Georgia’s five most affected counties, he said.

“You will see that the highest prescription rates are in the smaller cities, towns and smaller, least populated counties, he said. “They are in counties where more of the residents are white … where more people are uninsured or unemployed.”

Matthews said the Georgia suits will be folded into the multidistrict litigation pending before U.S. District Judge Dan Polster of the Northern District of Ohio.

Those suits, like the Candler County suits filed in Georgia’s Southern District on Jan. 29, allege aggressive, deceptive marketing practices and the widespread, indiscriminate distribution of the highly addictive drugs to physicians and clinics across the nation.

Polster already has appointed lead counsel in the MDL. But he has not yet named a steering committee. Matthews said his firm is seeking appointment to the plaintiffs’ steering committee.

“We think that’s important, because that will give Georgia counties and the hospitals we represent a better seat at the bargaining table,” Matthews said.

And although the Athens firm is small, it has already had an outsize impact in MDL litigation in Georgia and elsewhere in the country. Firm partner Henry Garrard is currently co-lead counsel in the transvaginal mesh MDL against medical supply manufacturer C.R. Bard in the Southern District of West Virginia.

He also serves on the executive committee in the Johnson & Johnson talcum powder cases in Los Angeles Superior Court in California.

Garrard also was appointed as sole plaintiffs’ lead and liaison counsel and to the plaintiffs’ steering committee in the Mentor ObTape MDL in the Middle District of Georgia and was lead counsel in that MDL’s first bellwether trial.

Last August, U.S. District Judge Richard Story appointed Garrard as co-lead plaintiffs’ counsel, sole liaison counsel and placed him on the MDL steering committee in the Ethicon physiomesh flexible composite hernia mesh products MDL, which was transferred to the Northern District of Georgia last June.

“People think we’re just a little old firm in Athens,” he said. “We are actually better known nationally than we are in the state.”