Summit County adds Pfizer, Smith’s, Sackler family members to opioid lawsuit

Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson announces the county’s lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors on the steps of the County Courthouse in Coalville in 2018.
Park Record file photo

Summit County added more than 55 defendants to its opioid lawsuit July 29, including members of the Sackler family, drugmaker Pfizer, pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens and stores like Walmart, Costco and Smith’s Food and Drug. The Sacklers founded pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma.

Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson said the additions were prompted by the recent release of a trove of data from a Drug Enforcement Administration database.

“It’s not a change in strategy, it would be a natural progression — an augmentation of our damage claim based upon additional facts we’ve gathered,” Olson said.

From 2006 to 2012, Olson said, the data showed that more than a million pills per year were distributed to Summit County, enough for roughly 24 pills per year for every man, woman and child.

The suit doesn’t put a price tag on the damages it seeks, but asks for compensatory and punitive damages. All of the money from a potential settlement or judgment will go back into the community, Olson said, to be used for things like education and prevention efforts or an addiction center.

The suit is trying to recoup the true costs of the opioid epidemic on Summit County, Olson said. Quantifying those costs is difficult, but could hinge on statistics like the number of pills distributed to the area, the number of opiate-related deaths and the number of people in the area diagnosed with opioid use disorder, Olson said.

The Sackler family recently settled an Oklahoma lawsuit for $270 million, and in March, Bloomberg estimated the family’s net worth at $13 billion.

Summit County was the first county in Utah to file a lawsuit centered on opioids against the pharmaceutical industry, in March 2018, and the litigation has since grown to include 17 other counties. The next step is a hearing on the defendants’ motions to dismiss scheduled for Nov. 14.

Olson said the county has purposefully pursued the case in state court, but there is a concurrent case in Ohio that may affect the outcome. Hundreds of federal cases have been consolidated in that “multidistrict litigation,” and Olson said the judge in that case is weighing whether to certify a negotiating class that would enable a group of defendants and a group of plaintiffs to negotiate a settlement.

That could potentially cover cases around the nation, and Olson said the attorneys the county has contracted with for its lawsuit would have a seat at the table.

That group of attorneys will only take a fee contingent on the damages it can secure. Olson called it a risk-free arrangement for the county. The group includes two Salt Lake City-based firms – Dewsnup, King, Olsen, Worel, Havas and Mortensen; and Magleby, Cataxinos and Greenwood – and New York City-based Napoli Shkolnik, PLLC .

The county has devoted staff time to the effort to quantify the costs the opioid epidemic has had. That’s included Olson’s time, but also staff in the Health Department, Sheriff’s Office and Fire District.

First responders are often on the front lines of the fight against addiction, responding to overdoses and the crimes that may result from the disease. The Sheriff’s Office has borne the brunt of a lot of those costs, Olson said, as it is often forced to house people in its jail who are suffering from addiction and to enact programming to help address the problem.

Eight members of the Sackler family are named as defendants in the case. Richard Sackler is named as inventor on some 50 patents relating to oxycodone and other pain medications, according to court documents.

Also among the new defendants is John Kapoor, who was charged in 2017 with participating in a scheme to bribe doctors to prescribe fentanyl, and was convicted in 2019 on racketeering charges, according to court documents.


Off to cover ‘Gwyneth Goes Skiing,’ the musical; someone had to do it

Next week The Park Record is sending me overseas to cover the retelling of Utah’s greatest export in recent memory — the Gwyneth Paltrow trial. I’ll be traveling to Pleasance Theatre, a small performance venue in the heart of London. There, the “harbingers of queer chaos” production company Awkward Productions will be debuting their latest show, “Gwyneth Goes Skiing.” 

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