With Utah debating its options for suing the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, Salt Lake County files an opioids suit of its own

Salt Lake County sued several of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies Tuesday for what it says are the burdens opioid medications and misleading business practices have placed on Utah’s largest county.

In filing a lawsuit of its own in state court, the county opted to avoid a political debate that has played out at the state level over whether and how to enter the courtroom with a number of companies and physicians who distributed their products over the past two decades.

The county instead will attempt to tell its own story of residents’ troubles with opiate addiction, overdoses and homelessness in recent years, and of the strain the response to that suffering has put on Salt Lake County services.

“Big Pharma would like to continue on making as much money as they’ve been making, so I don’t have much sympathy for them,” said Grant Woods, former Arizona attorney general and one of more than a dozen local and out-of-state lawyers working with the county on the case. “They need to pay the price here, and we’re going to make them pay the price.”

The lawsuit follows a number of others in Utah and dozens across the nation that seek to end years of allegedly misleading marketing practices that led people to become addicted to pain medication and, later, heroin and other opiates.

The county seeks changes in the marketing practices of pharmaceutical companies, which the suit says turned to doctors to spread painkiller use nationwide and in Utah. It also seeks restitution “in the amount they have been unjustly enriched” at the county’s expense, and it seeks damages for the costs the county has incurred responding to the opioid epidemic.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill was flanked by Mayor Ben McAdams and Sheriff Rosie Rivera, all of whom talked about opioid addiction’s effect on crime and about the strain that it has put on the county’s budget and jail.

After years of drug use and other crime in downtown Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Park neighborhood near the homeless shelter, the problem boiled over and let to state, county and city intervention.

The state and county worked to rapidly provide jail and treatment beds for those arrested as Utah tried to stop the use of heroin and other drugs. At the new district attorney building, Gill said many people who use heroin in the county and across the U.S. started with prescription painkillers.

“Eighty percent of heroin addicts nationwide started with prescription drugs,” he said.

The county’s suit names as defendants Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Allergan, Watson Pharmaceuticals and affiliates.

“We are deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis, and we are dedicated to being part of the solution,” Purdue Pharma wrote in a statement, adding that it had developed three opioid medications that have “abuse-deterrent properties.”

The filing is at least the third county-led lawsuit to name Lynn R. Webster, a physician whom the suit accuses of being “one of the most influential” doctors who supported using opioids to treat long-term pain through his Salt Lake City-based Lifetree Pain Clinic. Federal prosecutors spent years investigating Webster and the deaths of some of his patients before dropping the case in 2014.

Webster is represented by Salt Lake City lawyer Peter Stirba, who said the lawsuit is “most unfortunate.”

“Salt Lake County has chosen to sue one of the most prominent pain doctors in the Country who consistently and repeatedly has lectured and written about the risks and challenges in prescribing opioids,” Stirba said in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune. “The County has decided to completely ignore his outstanding contributions to controlling what has indeed become a crisis of the abuse, misuse and overuse of opioids.”

Lynn Webster

Summit and Tooele counties also named Webster in lawsuits they filed last month against many of the same companies. Lawsuits from Box Elder, Cache, Davis, Utah, Washington and Weber counties are expected to follow.

The counties will attempt to keep their cases in state court, and experts expect that the defendants will attempt to consolidate cases nationwide and move them into federal court.

In the meantime, Woods said, the team is prepared to go to trial and likes its chances.

“You have to be ready to try your case,” Woods said. “As I said, we’re more than happy to try. I think they’re going to get creamed if they want to try the case. If they want to try, let’s go.”

The state debate

Salt Lake County’s filing also follows a monthslong and ongoing debate among Utah’s top politicians about how to proceed as states and counties line up.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes have disagreed for months on whether Utah should file its own lawsuit or join dozens of others in negotiating a settlement out of court. The debate led lawmakers, who prefer a single state filing, to pass a bill calling on Reyes to sue.

Despite the bill, Reyes still prefers the national settlement. Reyes and about 40 other attorneys general are working out of court with cooperating witnesses to get evidence and possibly reach a settlement, according to Spencer Austin, chief deputy over criminal matters in Reyes’ office.

Utah is working to resolve issues with a number of people and companies, Austin said, and it would consider lawsuits in state court against any company that doesn’t resolve issues during the national discussions.

“We will probably end up with feet in both camps,” Austin told The Tribune on Tuesday. “I think we will end up filing against certain manufacturers and distributors, [and] hope we will end up being able to resolve through the multistate” litigation.

In a late-December radio interview with The Zone, Reyes indicated that work with dozens of other states on a “giant, potential settlement” with manufacturers was already in the works, which he said was better than paying outside attorneys.

The approach frustrated Hughes, who preferred immediate action and a Utah-led lawsuit that he believes could bring a bigger settlement and substantive changes in marketing practices of the pharmaceutical companies.

Counties “have their own unique story to tell, their individual story to tell,” said Greg Hartley, chief of staff for the outgoing House speaker. “While that multistate effort is going on and they’re talking about a settlement before there’s any litigation, [Hughes is] more concerned about what’s found in the discovery phase of an actual lawsuit and court case rather than the financial gains that are received.

“He sees the multistate effort,” Hartley added, “as kind of an effort that’s being done by several state attorneys general in collaboration with the manufacturers.”

The attorney general’s office is putting together a group that would help pick a law firm that would work for the state if it sues, Austin said, and should be ready to start the search by the end of this week or next week.

Meanwhile, he said, Utah will continue working with other states to see whether it can secure a settlement that includes damages and changes to business practices.

“The financial resolution is important, particularly to the state and individuals that have been affected by this,” Austin said. “We want to help these people harmed by this epidemic. But as important to that is how the companies are going to continue to do business in the future. We believe they have engaged in what we would not considered to be good business practices.”

Woods said more state and county filings will boost pressure on the companies to agree to terms that will result in widespread change.

“There are some — I don’t think Sean Reyes is in that group — but there are some out there who want to just declare victory, get some sort of check, declare victory and move onto the next issue,” Woods said. “Most of us have zero interest in that.”