When news reports began to surface earlier this year that the Utah Legislature wanted the Utah Attorney General’s Office to sue Big Pharma for its accountability — or lack thereof — in the state’s alarming opioid addiction epidemic, we thought Tooele County would be the first of Utah’s 29 counties to eagerly join the fight because of its own high number of citizens who are struggling with addiction and death.
But being second is OK, too.
As reported in last Tuesday’s edition, Tooele County filed a lawsuit in 3rd District Judicial Court on March 28 against several opioid manufacturers and distributors. Summit County was the first, filing its lawsuit a few days earlier. The Salt Lake City-based law firm of Dewsnup, King, Olsen & Worel is representing Tooele County in the case. The law firm’s fees are contingent upon winning; the county will incur no fees if the case is lost.
To summarize, the 240-page complaint states the case is about one thing: corporate greed. It asserts the opioid crisis was created by misinformation, false claims and false marketing generated by manufacturers and distributors of opioids such as OxyContin, Percocet and Fentora, and generic opioids oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentanyl.
According to the lawsuit, opioid manufacturers have lied for decades to both doctors and the public about the serious risks of long-term use of the drugs — one of the most serious being addiction. The complaint also states opioid distributors injected millions upon millions of opioid pills into small communities like Tooele County that are now left to cope with human and financial consequences.
Those consequences are both significant and dire in Tooele County. A state report released last May ranks the county as Utah’s leader in opioid-related deaths per capita. The report shows the county had 39 opioid deaths during 2014 and 2015. Next on the list was the Four Corners Health District with 33.92 deaths, followed by Wasatch County with 28.63 and 24.68 for Salt Lake County.
Reportedly, more than a dozen states and dozens of counties have filed lawsuits against Big Pharma seeking damages for the cost communities have suffered as a result of the opioid crisis. According to attorney Colin King, who is representing Tooele County in the case, the county will be “awarded damages for the amounts it spent paying for opioid-associated costs of the health department, first responders, sheriff’s department, social services, etc. We haven’t yet calculated those costs.”
Those costs are not yet known, but they’re certain to be staggering. And what about the other costs, as stated in the lawsuit, such as opioid addiction’s impacts on families and the community, whether it is child neglect, infants born with drug dependence, estrangement from families, lost careers, criminal justice involvement — and death?
Although Tooele County — and other counties and states across the U.S. —may lose in a courtroom after years of litigation, the Tooele County Commission is acknowledged for jumping into a worthwhile fight that must be pursued. In the end there may be no justice, but the reward may come in a wholesale change in our nation’s healthcare system and its approach to opioid use and pain management.