Tooele and Salt Lake counties follow Summit County’s lead in suing Big Pharma | ParkRecord.com

Tooele and Salt Lake counties follow Summit County’s lead in suing Big Pharma

Salt Lake and Tooele counties have now followed Summit County's lead in filing lawsuits against some of the country's largest manufacturers and distributors of opioids for their alleged role in the opioid crisis.

Last month, Summit County became the first county in the state to sue Big Pharma, claiming the marketing campaigns and deceptive tactics of the manufacturers and distributors has led to the national opioid epidemic.

Within days of Summit County's suit being filed in 3rd District Court, the same firms that were retained to represent the county also filed a complaint on behalf of Tooele County. Both lawsuits name 25 businesses and individuals from nine major opioid manufactures and distributors as defendants, but are separate complaints.

"I'm not surprised by it at all and I think it is very timely," said Margaret Olson, Summit County attorney. "There are real ongoing damages to people and local governments as a result of this public health crisis. I think it is a wise and astute thing for counties to do right now. I'm anticipating at least half a dozen other counties will be signing with the same lawyers for suits of their own."

A nearly 250-page complaint was filed on behalf of Tooele County, with some of the same allegations that were made by Summit County being leveled at the defendants. The suit claims Tooele County has had to spend an "exorbitant amount of money" as part of the county's struggle with the opioid epidemic as a direct result of the actions of the defendants.

"Tooele County spends enormous sums each year on behalf of residents of its county whom are indigent or otherwise eligible for services, for prescription opioids which are manufactured, marketed, promoted, sold, and/or distributed by the defendants," the complaint states.

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As more complaints are filed by the three firms representing the county, Olson said it greatly improves the chances of a settlement for Summit County. Additionally, she said it spreads the out-of-pocket costs among more jurisdictions to enhance Summit County's overall recovery.

The three firms representing the two counties are working on a contingency fee agreement and will only be paid if money is awarded in the lawsuit. Olson said the agreed fee term is 20 percent net of costs.

Representatives of opioid distributors and manufacturers have strongly denied the claims in the lawsuits that have been filed, while suggesting more resources should be dedicated to addressing the root causes of addiction rather than directing blame through litigation.

Salt Lake County is being represented by a Salt Lake-based firm and is pursuing its own suit separate from the other counties. Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams authorized Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill to file the complaint on April 9.

Salt Lake County's complaint claims the county has been disproportionately affected by the opioid crisis, more so than any other county in the state. Nearly half of all fatal opioid overdoses in Utah annually occur in Salt Lake County, according to the suit.

"Here, 531 opioid overdoses occurred in 2014-2015 alone — roughly one every 33 hours," the complaint states. "More than one-third of all Utah emergency department encounters linked to opioids are reported by facilities operating in Salt Lake County. And while opioid-related crime is on the rise across the State, much of it has occurred in Salt Lake County urban encampments, like the Rio Grande area of downtown Salt Lake City, where opioid abusers congregate to become both the victimizers of others and the victims of drug dealers who prey on their addictions."

Olson said Salt Lake County officials always made it clear that they would be filing a suit on their own.

"When I undertook this effort on behalf of non-Wasatch Front counties to get bids and proposals and interview lawyer groups, it did not include Salt Lake County," she said. "I knew they were going to do their own thing."

As of Tuesday, Olson said most of the defendants named in Summit and Tooele counties' suits have been served. She said there have been some failed attempts at service with out-of-state defendants, but anticipates the defendants will soon start to file answers.

"That will trigger the county's obligation to make initial disclosures and produce all of the evidence," she said. "This is going to continue to move forward aggressively."

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the fee agreement with Summit County’s legal representation.