Now that Utah has sued Big Pharma, House Speaker Greg Hughes makes it clear he won’t settle for an out-of-court settlement

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) House Speaker Greg Hughes hosts a pre-legislative session conversation Thursday Jan. 11 about what will be dominating subjects during the session: homelessness, substance abuse and mental health.

As promised, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes on Thursday sued Purdue Pharma, a leading manufacturer of opioids, on allegations of false claims that exaggerated the benefits and hid the risks of its prescription drugs.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, applauded the action, which he’s been pressing for months, but made it clear he wants the case brought to trial — not used as leverage to get an out-of-court settlement.

He pointed to a recent settlement by one company in another state as an unsatisfactory solution.

“It was [seen as] a cost of doing business in my opinion. This effort has to be different than that,” Hughes said during a news conference hosted by Reyes to announce the Utah lawsuit.

“This effort has to find accountability. We cannot let people off the hook if they’ve done things illegal,” Hughes said. “We need discovery. We don’t need a settlement that hides and seals documents.”

Reyes was slow coming to the courthouse — doing so only in the wake of multiple Utah counties filing suit and the state Legislature this spring essentially demanding that he sue on behalf of the state. It caused serious friction between the A.G. and lawmakers, especially Hughes, who has been leading the effort for counties to bring lawsuits.

(Reyes and Hughes, who is stepping down from the Legislature in January, are often mentioned as candidates for governor in 2020.)

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes speaks during the press conference in which Utah's Criminal and Juvenile Justice Commission released a package of proposals aimed at reducing the population and costs of the state's prison system, Wednesday, November 12, 2014.

Reyes explains the delay by saying his office has for months played a leading role in a cooperative effort by attorneys general across the country to try to reach a negotiated settlement with the major makers and distributors of OxyContin and other opioids.

He described it as an “aggressive and comprehensive investigation” that has produced “massive amounts of documents to build a case.”

“None of the A.G.s were doing any favors to these targets of our inquiries,” he said, apparently referring to news reports questioning whether large campaign contributions had made the elected officials wary of prosecuting the companies civilly or criminally. “We were vigorous in our pursuit of the truth and forceful in our demands.”

But after a period of cooperation and progress, Reyes said settlement negotiations with Purdue had stalled.

“By filing this lawsuit, Utah builds on the momentum of the multistate investigation,” Reyes said. “It’s time to make Purdue take responsibility.”

Utah continues to negotiate with other opioid manufacturers and distributors who are “still talking to us in a serious way about a potential settlement,” Reyes said. “We want to let that process play out and see how that goes with them.”

If those talks sputter, Utah could add them as defendants in the lawsuit.

As to Hughes’ and others’ point that the state needs to go to trial to force the truth out in the open about Purdue’s misdeeds, Reyes said, “I am ready to go all the way to get us to where I think we need to be” to hold the company accountable, get it to change its behavior and reimburse the state and its residents for the harm they have suffered.

“If it’s trial, then we’ve got no problem taking it all the way to get to a verdict. But, as you know, 90-plus percent of the cases end up settling for a reason — trials are unpredictable, they’re long.”

He said while his office is now focused on litigation, “we’re not ruling out the possibility that a settlement could still occur.”

“We just want what’s the best for Utah,” Reyes said.

The suit demands the company halt deceptive marketing and pay damages and costs related to Utah’s addiction epidemic that caused an estimated 1,884 deaths in a recent three-year period. It was filed in 7th District Court because Carbon County is the epicenter of the crisis in Utah — with a per capita prescription rate of 176 per 100 residents.

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