Utah County joins other counties in Utah and across the nation in suing major opioid manufacturers and distributors, officials announced Monday afternoon.
Utah County’s complaint will be filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the district of Utah, said Matthew Muir, an attorney with the Jones Waldo law firm representing Utah County.
Big name manufacturers like Purdue Pharma and Johnson and Johnson are named in the suit, Muir said, as well as distributors McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen.
Muir said the complaint seeks multiple types of relief, including monetary, though a specific amount is not listed.
“Yes, we are asking for monetary damages,” Muir said. “Our client, Utah County, has borne serious financial consequences due to the opioid crisis, and should be compensated for that.”
In addition to money, though, Muir said the lawsuit will also seek to have those companies come to the table and help with solutions, including abatement programs, assistance in providing substance abuse treatment and assistance in providing medications that can be used to wean people off their opioid addictions.
The suit is being filed in federal court for several reasons, Muir said. Several federal claims are being used in the claim, and the case is anticipated to be moved out of Utah for all pre-trial activities.
A multi-district litigation proceeding pending in Ohio has aggregated similar cases from across the country to be in front of one judge for pre-trial proceedings, Muir said. If there were to be a resolution to the claims prior to a trial, it will happen in that case. If the case does go to trial, it will come back to Utah.
Utah County Commissioners Bill Lee and Nathan Ivie were both present at the announcement, and each voiced his support for the action.
Ivie told a story of blowing out his knee in a ski accident, and subsequently having surgery and being put on pain medication. His doctor made sure he got off the pain medication as soon as possible, which Ivie said is, unfortunately, the exception, not the rule.
“That’s why we’re here today,” Ivie said. “And that’s why I support this action, because I believe there is a strong body of evidence that supports the fact that these drug manufacturers knew the addictive nature of these drugs and the damage they could cause to lives, but rather than making that information known, they suppressed the information, they suppressed the research.”
Lee said money is only a small part of the solution, and educating people about the dangers continues to be important.
Lee compared opioids to the wildfires that recently tore through more than 120,000 acres in southern Utah County.
“If it’s managed appropriately, it can help,” Lee said. “It can help the healing process. But if it’s left to run like a wildfire like we’ve seen in our county itself, it will run through lives, it will run through communities ... and it does not care who it consumes.”
According to 2014-2015 data, Utah County experienced 19.33 deaths per 100,000 attributed to opioid overdoses.
The Healthcare Distribution Alliance, the national trade association representing distributors including AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson, disputes that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written.
“Given our role, the idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated,” said John Parker, senior vice president at HDA in a prepared statement in June. “Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation.”
The most at-risk area in Utah County for opioid overdoses is the southern portion of the county, said Malyce Warner, prevention specialist with Utah County’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Prevention and Treatment. Deaths from opioid overdoses outpace the state and county in southern Utah County, including communities like Payson, Santaquin, Goshen and Genola, at 27.68 deaths per 100,000.
Warner said Utah County is continually working to reduce those rates, and the numbers are on the way down. Some efforts the county has made include partnering with the Use Only As Directed campaign, which emphasizes speaking out about addiction, opting out of being prescribed opioids and safely disposing of drugs when they are no longer needed.
Summit County became the first Utah county to file a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers in March, and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes announced in May that Utah would be pursuing a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, for allegedly downplaying the drug’s addictive qualities.
The Utah County commissioners first signaled intent to pursue a lawsuit in November, when they passed a resolution announcing the intent to pursue legal action against drug manufacturers and distributors of opioids. That resolution was backed by Utah’s Speaker of the House Greg Hughes, and closely followed an announcement by Salt Lake County that it also intended to sue drug companies.
“Drug companies, knowing of the serious risks and adverse outcomes related to the use of their opioids, including the highly addictive nature of their opioid products, nevertheless set out in the 1990s and 2000s to persuade providers, regulators and patients that opioids are safe and effective in treating chronic non-cancer pain,” the commission’s resolution stated.
The Utah County Commission finalized an agreement with law firms in June.