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Tooele County sues drugmakers over opioid crisis

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SALT LAKE CITY — Tooele County, which claims among the highest rates of drug overdose deaths in Utah, has sued pharmaceutical companies over opioid addiction in the rural county.

Drugmakers for decades concealed the risks associated with painkillers from the public, including Tooele residents, attorneys for the county argue in a complaint filed Wednesday in Utah's 3rd District Court.

The lawsuit mirrors a claim filed by Summit County late last month, as the two Utah counties join dozens of other counties across the country who are waging a battle against the drugmakers in court.

Tooele residents' dependence on the drugs has overtaxed police, probation, public assistance and other agencies in the county, they argue. The suit seeks damages to be determined at trial.

"The cost of the addiction takes time to unfold, but can be measured in the impact on families and the community, whether it is child neglect, infants born with drug dependence, estrangement of families, lost careers or criminal justice involvement," said Colin King, one of the attorneys representing the county.

Overuse of the prescription drugs has amplified overdose deaths in the county, which has the 2nd highest rate of fatal overdoses in Utah, the county's lawyers noted in a prepared statement Monday announcing the court filing.

They argue the companies knew about potential for longterm users to develop an addiction but didn't disclose the danger and touted the drugs as the best pain remedy in marketing campaigns.

The county has spent "exorbitant amounts of money" as a result, according to the claim. It did not include any dollar amount on the losses, which the county says pertain to law enforcement and health care, but also to lost productivity among residents.

Tooele logs 33 drug deaths for every 100,000 people, according to Utah Department of Health figures that considered data from 2013 to 2015. Only Utah's southeast group of counties, which includes Carbon Emery and Grand, had a higher rate, with 41 deaths per 100,000.

Two dozen companies are named as defendants. They include Purdue Pharma, behind the name-brand opioid Oxycontin, and Endo Pharmaceuticals, which produces Percocet.

Tooele County, home to an estimated 67,000 people, is represented by King's and one other Utah firm, plus a New York City-based law group. They will recoup attorney's fees if they win the case but won't charge the county if they lose, King said.

In November, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and District Attorney Sim Gill announced they would sue big pharmaceutical companies over the opioid epidemic in Utah's most populous county. Gill said last month that the county was still carefully preparing its case.