Sanpete joins lawsuit against opioid makers
By James Tilson
MANTI—The Sanpete County Commission approved a resolution allowing the county to join in lawsuits against the pharmaceutical manufacturers of opioid drugs.
Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels said the lawsuit seeks to hold opioid drug manufacturers responsible for the damage done to the county by the “opioid epidemic”.
“This is an issue on which all sides of the political spectrum can agree,” he said.
Daniels led the effort to have the county recover all the damage done within the county from opioid addiction. As Daniels said, “As the civil attorney and lead prosecutor for the county, I get a unique perspective on the problem of opioids. Just the overall damage in the county.”
Daniels continued, “I approached [the commission] at a time when there were other county attorneys in other counties beginning to sue the manufacturers. Many of the manufacturers have already admitted to being at fault in how they marketed the products, and in deceptive and fraudulent practices that led to the deluge of problems associated with opiates.”
“This county in particular, like a lot of rural counties, has been hit hard,” he said. “This is a way to recognize wrong-doing, and seek to mitigate the damages caused by that wrong-doing.”
Daniels explained how the manufacturers’ deception about “non-addictive and safe” opioid prescriptions led to addiction to those drugs, and sometimes to illegal drugs. “I know a lot of these individuals chose to take the drug, but most of the time it started with a lawful, legal prescription. Through over-prescribing and deceptive, fraudulent marketing, the patients became hooked.
“The majority of our heroin addicts didn’t start with heroin, they came over from prescriptive opioids. Jeremy Palmer [a high profile over-dose death from several years ago] got hooked on heroin that way.
“This affects all facets of society. It has no respect for persons. The upper class, the lower class and everyone in between.”
The resolution sets forth the reasons for the county’s lawsuit. First, the resolution described the devastation opioid addiction has caused in Sanpete County and in Utah. The resolution cites statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which has declared the United States is experiencing an opioid-induced “public health epidemic.” Ninety-one Americans die each day from opioid-related drug overdoses and opioid pain relievers, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl, and hydromorphone. These are responsible for three-fourths of all prescription drug overdose deaths.
In Utah, nearly one in three adults has taken an opioid pain medication. Utah has the seventh highest drug overdose rate in the U.S., with an average of six people dying per week, and 24 deaths each month from prescription opioid overdosing. In fact, prescription opioids have been responsible for more drug deaths in Utah than all other drug categories, including illicit drugs.
Daniels confirmed this is true in Sanpete County as well. “The last four or five overdose deaths I have seen have been opioid-based,” he said.
The resolution states Sanpete County is experiencing opioid-related deaths at the same rate as the rest of Utah, and has faced a significant economic impact, from health and social costs, and emergency and inpatient care.
Second, the resolution states the opioid manufacturers’ responsibility for the epidemic: Beginning in the 1990’s, opioid manufacturers lied to both doctors and the public about the risks of opioids, and touted them as a non-addictive and safer alternative to other drugs. Meanwhile, opioid distributors injected millions upon millions of opioid pills into small communities, far in excess of any reasonable need.
As a direct consequence of over distribution, addiction has become commonplace, leading to drug overdoses, as well as addiction to illicit drugs such as heroin.
Drug companies and distributors spent millions of dollars on promotional activities and materials that falsely deny or trivialize the risks of opioids while overstating the benefits of using them for long-term chronic pain.
The resolution states serious allegations have been raised that prescription manufacturers have systematically engaged in deceptive marketing practices and fraudulent cover-ups to advance the sale of prescription opioids.
Therefore, Sanpete County, under the theories of False Advertising, abating a public nuisance, and violations of the Utah Pattern of Unlawful Activity Act, “shall pursue legal action against drug manufacturers and distributors of opioids” by June 30, 2018, seeking “the maximum award for damages.”
Daniels said the commission is still deciding on who will represent the county in the lawsuit. Daniels has advised the commission to file the lawsuit in state court, in the Sixth District Court in Manti, by a Salt Lake law firm partnered with a national mass tort law firm which will have the resources to pursue this type of case.
It will be the responsibility of the law firm to calculate the exact damages due to Sanpete County from the manufacturers. The law firm will look at jail costs, law enforcement and counseling. According to Daniels, “We don’t have a lot of resources to deal with [counseling addicts].”
However, the bottom line is that the opioid epidemic was preventable and only happened because of the greed of pharmaceutical drug manufacturers. And Daniels and the commission want to hold them responsible for their part in these deaths. “At the end of the day, I’m all about responsibility,” he said.