Pills-Bottle

The Delaware Department of Justice announced Wednesday that it had retained a national team of attorneys and experts to explore the possibility of litigation against companies that may have contributed to the state’s opioid epidemic.

Attorney General Matt Denn said that Fields, a Washington, D.C.-based firm currently suing opioid manufacturers and distributors on behalf of the Cherokee Nation, would lead the effort to investigate similar firms for potential wrongdoing that may expose them to civil liability under Delaware law.

The legal team will also include attorneys from Gilbert LLP, Connolly Gallagher and Dolt, Thompson, Shepherd & Conway. Joseph Rannazzisi, a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official at the heart of an expose by The Washington Post and “60 Minutes” on Congressional actions to water down federal drug interdiction laws, would serve as a consulting member on the team, Denn said.

“This will give us an ideal combination: the ability to act quickly and decisively as an independent state, along with the legal expertise and investigative resources necessary to pursue a matter of this magnitude involving companies with enormous resources,” Denn said in a statement.

“The goal is very simple. We will make sure that any entities responsible under Delaware law for creating this crisis help us solve it, and that they stop any practices still going on that are contributing to this crisis.”

Denn said the DOJ will retain all decision-making authority over any litigation or settlements stemming from the probe, and the firms would be compensated from any eventual recovery the state may receive.

According to the statement, the four firms were chosen by a panel of DOJ attorneys and a representative from the Delaware Department of Health and Social Service, tasked with reviewing 14 responses to a June 23 notice seeking special legal counsel to represent the state in the investigation.

The announcement comes as Delaware is dealing with rising death tolls and increasing costs associated with opioid addiction. State officials have cited statistics showing that overall overdose deaths in Delaware spiked 38 percent from 228 in 2015—then the 12th highest in the nation—to 308 in 2016. Many of those deaths, Denn has said, are linked to the rise of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Denn, who is not running for re-election in 2018, has made combating the crisis a central issue for his office, and the General Assembly in May passed a package of bills, with Denn’s backing, to decrease opioid overprescription and remove barriers for people seeking treatment for substance abuse.

David Humes, a board member of the Delaware advocacy group atTAcK Addiction, said Wednesday that it was time for companies complicit in the crisis to be held accountable for their roles in allowing it happen.

“Deaths from opioids have escalated dramatically over the past 20 years and became the public health crisis of the 21st century,” Humes said in a statement. “Should the investigation show evidence of wrongdoing, these firms must be held accountable and penalized for those deaths, the devastation they have caused families and provide treatment to those still in the throes of addiction.”