Summit County plans to file suit against opioid manufacturers
Summit County will soon be joining other counties and states across the country that have filed lawsuits against drug manufacturers and distributors for their role in the national opioid epidemic.
The County Council unanimously approved a resolution on Wednesday that recognizes the damaging effects of opioid addiction while authorizing the county to file a suit on behalf of the public. County Council member Chris Robinson was absent from the discussion.
County Attorney Margaret Olson drafted the resolution and presented it to the County Council after learning that other counties along the Wasatch Front were considering filing similar suits.
“Opioid addiction has touched every family, and we all know someone who has struggled with this or even have a family member who became addicted,” she said in an interview on Thursday. “I have been working in the Drug Court and saw that nationwide there were counties that were pursuing Big Pharma so I decided to present a resolution.”
More than 16 states and dozens of counties have filed more than 250 lawsuits in federal court against opioid manufactures seeking damages for the cost communities have incurred as a result of the opioid crisis, according to the resolution. Olson said she believes other counties are also planning to file suits.
“I do anticipate that other Utah counties will be joining or following in the near future,” she said. “No county in Utah has filed suit yet, but I expect something to be filed on behalf of the larger counties very soon and I wanted to move on it. I think it is very important and timely, and I see no reason for our county to not try and recoup some of its costs.”
More than three out of five drug overdose deaths involve opioids, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 42,000 people died from overdoses involving opioids in 2016.
Utah has the seventh-highest drug overdose rate in the country, with an average of six people dying per week, according to the resolution. Deaths from drug overdoses have outpaced deaths from firearms, falls and motor vehicle crashes since 2002.
The resolution alleges that prescription opioid manufactures have “systematically engaged in deceptive marketing practices and fraudulent cover-ups to advance the sale of prescription opioids.”
“Beginning in the 1990s, opioid manufactures lied to both doctors and the public about the risks of opioids,” the resolution states. “Opioid distributors injected millions upon millions of opioid pills into small communities, far in excess of any reasonable need.”
Counties continue to incur the costs associated with the opioid epidemic through treatment and incarceration of addicted persons, increased law enforcement and social services.
“It is my hope that the county is able to recover money it has lost and be able to put that into abatement for education programs, substance abuse treatment and creating public awareness and solutions for opioid addiction,” Olson said.
Several large firms have offered their services to the county to pursue a lawsuit on its behalf so the county would not be responsible for any costs associated with the litigation, Olson said. She added that the county attorney’s office is not equipped to take on litigation of this kind. The county will soon begin the search for outside counsel.
Olson said a lawsuit targeting pharmaceutical companies for their role in the opioid epidemic is consistent with the county’s strategic plan, which has identified mental wellness as a priority.
As part of the lawsuit and recognition of the crisis, the resolution stated the county would also work on a “sustainable, comprehensive public health approach to the opioid crisis in order to address preventable drug overdose deaths.”
“Big lawsuits don’t solve problems, but it will allow us to hold Big Pharma accountable for their role in this public health crisis,” Olson said.
County Council Chair Kim Carson said a lawsuit would be another step forward in the county’s efforts to combat mental health issues, such as substance abuse. She said the county hasn’t experienced as many deaths as other communities, but “even one isn’t acceptable.”
“It is something that is being looked at on a national basis and I think the timing is right,” she said. “With or without winning the money, I think it will help increase awareness, and hopefully we can provide some more education on opioids and alternatives to opioids.”
Meredith Reed was elected to a two-year term as chair of the Summit County Democratic Party and said she sees an opportunity to ride the so-called blue wave that saw a Democratic surge nationally and within the state.