OGDEN — Weber County’s year-old lawsuit against the nation’s top makers of opioids to help offset costs related to abuse of the drug could be settled by as early as the end of the year.
On the other hand, it could take a long, long time, depending, in part, on the resolution of a number of test cases set to go to trial later this year in U.S. District Court in Ohio.
“If the defendants put up a fight, it could be a real slog, it could be a while,” Matt McCune, a lawyer with Salt Lake City-based Magleby Cataxinos and Greenwood, said Tuesday. His firm is one of the three representing Weber County in its lawsuit.
McCune addressed Weber County commissioners on the lawsuit on Tuesday. He sought, and received, passage of a formal resolution declaring opioid abuse in the county a “public nuisance,” needed as part of the county’s legal strategy against the manufacturers of opioids like Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin.
McCune’s law firm, teaming with Napoli Shkolnik of New York City and Dewsnup King Olsen & Worel, is representing Weber County and 15 other Utah counties in separate lawsuits against opioid makers. Broadly, the counties charge the companies with irresponsible marketing of opioids, used medically as painkillers, resulting in abuse of the drugs, overdose deaths and addiction, taxing local resources. They seek damages to cover the costs of dealing with the ill-effects of the drugs.
Weber County’s case still winds through the system, and McCune said the outcome of four cases to be heard in federal court in Ohio this fall could bear on what happens here. Those cases, too, are being brought by governmental entities against opioid makers, and if the drug companies lose, they could seek a relatively quick settlement with Weber County and in other cases, McCune thinks.
A split decision, though, could drag things out as the companies weigh their alternatives.
Either way, McCune doesn’t expect the Weber County case to go to trial, he told commissioners, though the county’s legal reps are prepared to have the case heard here if need be.
“We’re already seeing settlements happen,” he said. He cited a recent settlement, as reported by The Oklahoman and other news outlets, in a case the state of Oklahoma brought against several opioid makers, including Teva Pharmaceuticals, one of the defendants in Weber County’s case.
Purdue Pharma and other opioid makers face many lawsuits across the country stemming from the ill-effects of the drugs and what the firms’ critics say was their flawed marketing of the drugs. The firms knew of the addictive powers of opioids but downplayed the dangers and, instead, bolstered marketing to maximize profits from sales of the drugs, the Weber County lawsuit charges.
In an open statement on its website, Purdue Pharma says it has been fighting illicit opioid use trying to develop “new, non-opioid pain medicines.”
If Weber County is successful, a portion of its settlement would go to the three firms handling the suit for the county — costs plus 20 percent of the total. The rest would go to Weber County to help offset costs in dealing with the effects of opioid abuse, like addiction counseling.
Downtown Ogden had the highest per-capita rate of opioid deaths in Utah in 2014 and 2015 with 55.33 per 100,000 residents, according to data from the Utah Epidemiological Outcomes Workgroup. That amounts to 41 deaths, highest in the two-year period of any of the “small areas” in Utah, as defined by state officials.