When Association of Arkansas Counties Executive Director Chris Villines hired Colin Jorgensen away from the state attorney general’s office a year ago, the plan was to have Jorgensen be a litigator for the association’s risk management portfolio in court, something state law recently allowed for the first time in 2017.
But for now, Jorgensen has a different assignment — representing as many as 75 Arkansas counties in state court against opioid manufacturers and distributors. The association will try to avoid being pulled into the multidistrict litigation settlement talks in Ohio, in favor of trying the case in front of an Arkansas jury.
And, unlike the federal case, Jorgensen is hoping the state will sign on as a plaintiff.
“We fully expect the defendants will remove it to federal court; we’ll file a motion to remand it to state court, the federal judge will decide where it goes,” he said. “It would be helpful if we have the state as a plaintiff, that will be easier to keep it in state court.”
If the association gets its way and is able to prosecute the case in state court, Jorgensen hopes the narrative that has caught on in the press will sink into jurors.
“We feel like we’re more likely to get the justice we need in Arkansas,” he said of the effort to avoid the multidistrict litigation talks. “Arkansas has 3 million people. There’s a risk of being ignored, or lost, or underappreciated in the context of the multidistrict litigation, where you have cities or counties that are by themselves bigger than the state.”
In 2017, Arkansas allowed risk management organizations like the AAC and the Arkansas Municipal League to use in-house counsel to directly represent their members.
A lawyer like Jorgensen who’s employed at the association can appear as the counsel of record in a case on behalf of a county or a county official.
“Before, we could provide advice, but when it was time to go to court, we’d have to hire outside private law firms,” Jorgensen said. “This makes sense because it’s cheaper to pay me a salary and have me do a full slate of cases than it is to pay outside law firms $200 an hour for the same amount of work.”
Jorgensen is not lacking any motivation when it comes to trying to slow the spread of opioid addiction. He’s a recovering alcoholic who is active in sponsoring others in recovery.
“This is a perfect fit for me, personally,” he said. “I’ve been to four funerals in the last year, friends I knew from recovery fellowship, people who disappeared from anything from a couple of days to a couple of weeks and turned up dead from an overdose. I’m right in the middle of the community of folks who struggle with addiction, and I know what it’s like and why counties need to help break addiction.”
He sees Arkansas getting worse before it gets better. The opioid prescription rate is still high there.
“Our ‘pill phase’ of the addiction cycles is still growing, whereas a lot of states are on the pill decline,” he said. “We haven’t seen the heroin bubble inflate yet.”
With 70 of the state’s 75 counties signed onto the suit, Jorgensen will try to get the remaining holdouts on board.
“Some counties don’t like the idea of being a plaintiff,” he said. “That will be a matter of explaining to them all the money they’ll be spending to provide human services and law enforcement.
I can go on the road to each sheriff or jail and dig up that data we need, talk to the county judges and make our case.”