Council caught ‘flatfooted’ by McAdams’ plan to sue drug companies over the opioid crisis

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams is moving forward with a plan to hire an outside firm to sue big pharmaceutical companies because of the effect opioids have had on the community. Some County Council members are frustrated that they didn't hear about the plan earlier.

Salt Lake County Council members made two things clear Tuesday: they support the mayor’s decision to go after pharmaceutical companies over the opioid crisis, but they don’t much like how he decided to do it.

Specifically, they wanted to be included.

“That didn’t happen with this,” councilwoman Jenny Wilson said during a break in the council meeting.

Wilson said she and others council members were caught flatfooted Sunday when they learned through a news release that Mayor Ben McAdams plans to sue the pharmaceutical industry.

The county operates collaboratively across a host of issues — from homelessness to criminal justice and social services — and Wilson said it would have been nice to work together in this instance.

“It would have been polite and I think would serve the county taxpayers better if we had created and continued to be team players,” she said.

Wilson, who ran McAdams and District Attorney Sim Gill through a battery of questions about their plans at Tuesday’s meeting, was jointed in her frustration by Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton.

“It seems odd to me that we weren’t notified,” Winder said, before asking the mayor whether he might seek the opioid study group’s input on the suit.

McAdams declined, saying a task force was not the right forum for a discussion of litigation strategy.

State law gives the decision-making power in litigation matters to county mayors, so McAdams was within his right to decide the issue on his own, Gill told the council.

McAdams said he called Wilson, who co-chairs a county opioid task force, and the rest of the nine-member council Sunday to notify then and invited each to his news conference.

None attended

“I’d love the council’s support on this, but we’re moving ahead,” he said.

Should the county recover damages from a lawsuit, McAdams said, policy and budgetary decisions about how the money is used would fall to the council.

On Monday, McAdams and Gill told reporters the county plans to hire an outside law firm to bring a civil lawsuit to hold “Big Pharma” accountable for the toll that opioids have taken on its citizens and government resources.

Also Tuesday, the Utah County Commission passed a resolution stating its intention to also bring a civil lawsuit against drug companies that make and distribute opioids.

More than 100 such lawsuits have been filed against drug companies by states, counties and municipalities since 2015.

Those suits take a variety of approaches: Some seek financial damages sufficient to pay for increased addiction-related criminal justice, drug treatment and social service; others allege consumer or Medicaid fraud on the part of companies for failing to disclose the likelihood of addiction or for the payment of unnecessary prescriptions.

Wilson asked both Gill and McAdams whether the county had the capacity to challenge the $11 billion drug industry with a costly lawsuit that could go for years and would require sharing a cut of any award with a contracted law firm.

Both said it’s not the first time the county has taken on an industry or company: In 2016, the county sued Volkswagen over emission problems with its cars. That suit was consolidated with others into a single federal lawsuit, which is ongoing.

The complexity of such lawsuits is the argument for hiring a outside firm, Gill said.