Citing ‘carnage’ of opioid addiction, Salt Lake County unveils partial settlement in its yearslong lawsuit against drugmakers

More than a quarter-billion dollars will come to Utah from an agreement reached in February. Salt Lake County’s share: $57 million.

Salt Lake County will receive about $57 million over the next 16 years as part of a $266 million payout to Utah, after four defendants in a yearslong opioid lawsuit decided to settle with governments nationwide.

Under the partial settlement, 85% of the total must go to education and other programs that address the effects of opioid addiction, something Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said had plagued the country.

The settlement stems from a 2018 lawsuit the county filed against 19 drugmakers and distributors. Only four of the defendants — manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, and distributors McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen — agreed to settle.

“Today’s settlement,” Gill said Tuesday, “is a partial down payment on that carnage that they’ve left behind.”

Utah’s most populous county remains in an active lawsuit against other defendants. When county officials announced the suit in 2018, they said the opioid crisis had cost thousands of lives and millions of dollars.

In February, the settling companies agreed to shell out $26 billion nationally to fend off drawn-out litigation from governments. Salt Lake County was one of 27 counties in Utah to file suit.

In a statement announcing the settlement, Johnson & Johnson said it no longer sells prescription opioids in the United States.

Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen will each contribute about $6 billion to the overall settlement, with McKesson contributing $7.4 billion, according to a joint statement from the companies in February.

“While the companies continue to strongly dispute the allegations made against them,” the statement said, “they believe that the implementation of this settlement is a key milestone toward achieving broad resolution of governmental opioid claims and delivering meaningful relief to communities across the United States that have been impacted by the opioid epidemic.”

A McKesson spokesperson declined to provide additional comment Tuesday.

Mayor Jenny Wilson said the opioid epidemic ran rampant through Salt Lake County, dealing a blow to public health and claiming lives. The proliferation of opioids, she said, affected all walks of life.

“It was and continues to be a devastating crisis,” Wilson said.

The county mayor said manufacturers and distributors knew the addictive nature of the drugs, did nothing about it, and, in many ways, were predatory. The partial settlement, she said, is not enough.

Of the national settlement, $266 million will go to Utah, with half of it going to the state and half going to counties. Gill, however, bristled at the state receiving money from a legal battle it hasn’t fought.

“It was the leadership of county government that led out on this,” Gill said. “There was a vacuum of leadership at the state level.”

In a statement Wednesday responding to Gill’s criticism, Utah attorney general’s office spokesperson Richard Piatt said Utah began working with other states on the opioid problem and settlement well before the counties filed suit.

“This coordinated effort was essential to reaching settlement,” Piatt said. “But at this point, the goal of the Office of the Utah Attorney General is to assist in addressing the opioid epidemic and decreasing opioid use disorder as much as possible.”

Salt Lake County will also receive about $2.5 million to help pay for outside attorneys who helped with the lawsuit. None of the $57 million due to the county will be used for outside lawyers, Gill said.

County officials have not yet decided how to spend the money. The county is expected to receive its first payment — an amount that has not yet been finalized — in May.

Editor’s note This story has been updated to include comments from the Utah attorney general’s office.