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Commissioners vote to accept state deal on opioid settlement with drugmaker, marking a first win in a long battle

Joey Palacios
Texas Public Radio
The case against opioid makers and sellers was sold to county residents as a big money case more than three years ago on the steps of the courthouse. It notched its first win Tuesday.

Bexar County Commissioners court voted Tuesday to accept a settlement from Johnson & Johnson as part of the state’s $290 million opioid settlement with the company.

The county will receive about $12 million from the deal — $4 million directly and an estimated $8 million more out of the region.

“Finally, after three years, we see real things happening here and money coming our way,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff after the vote.

The measure passed commissioners court without any questions for outside counsel Mikal Watts, who encouraged the county to accept the deal.

The settlement size from the massive opioid drug manufacturer seems, on its face, smaller than the hype around the county’s case three years ago when county lawyers called it a “billion dollar case.”

When asked about the disparity, Wolff was quick to point out that the billion dollars would have likely been over nearly 20 years, the way the tobacco litigation had been paid out. That scheme would put the real value of the billion dollar opioid case around $500 million. The current monies would be paid out before the end of the year and don’t include many other distributors the county is suing.

“This is the start of it,” he said. “I don’t know that we’ll end up getting what we hoped we would get. But I think we will end up in the long term getting a heck of a lot more money as these other settlements come along.”

More than a dozen other companies were named in the suit when the county filed back in 2018. Taking money now does ensure a company won’t declare bankruptcy halfway through paying a multi-year settlement.

Last year Wolff called a J&J settlement that would have directed $7 million to the area “nothing,” because it didn’t address the hundreds of millions in damages to the area. It isn’t clear how $5 million more from one of the largest companies in the lawsuit will address the total sum.

Wolff no longer expressed reservations about Attorney General Ken Paxton’s handling of the case. In a joint statement with Paxton, Wolff said the county has one of the highest rates of babies being addicted to drugs, and this money will go directly to helping families.

“The ability to put the money from this settlement to work for families in the county and to address opioid use disorder across the state right away is an important part of why I support General Paxton and Texas political subdivisions in moving this historic settlement forward,” he said.

The commitment to put money from the settlement towards abating the opioid problem in the community has consistently been touted, with Wolff reiterating it in commissioners court after the vote and in an interview hours later.

“Potentially, you can earn much more by going to trial,” said Justin Rodriguez, a commissioner for county precinct 2, “but you could also get zeroed out.”

There are no guarantees in the case that has been marked by controversy. Watts’ firm agreed to drop the lawyers fees on the case by more than 20%. The original contingency fees to be shared between himself and other firms was a third.

Those details were negotiated when a different firm led by Martin Phipps was running the show. Phipps’ firm was removed as leading the litigation earlier this year after public scrutiny over his behavior increased and mistakes in handling the case came to light.

Phipps was arrested for telephone harassment of a former wife in February. In July there were serious questions about expert witness filings, as reported first by the San Antonio Express-News. His team appeared to submit an expert’s testimony summary that the expert had never seen. At the time, Wolff called it a “screw-up.”

It isn’t clear what impact the turmoil among the outside counsel had on the high profile case. But it is clear that after three years of fighting, the county has notched a win, even if it seems smaller than originally expected.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org