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'A case about death': Davis County sues several opioid makers, citing overdose crisis

Davis County sues several opioid makers

FILE - This Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 file photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York. On Thursday, Aug,. 9, 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the number of opioid-addicted pregnant
FILE - This Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 file photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York. On Thursday, Aug,. 9, 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the number of opioid-addicted pregnant women shot up dramatically in the last 15 years.
Patrick Sison, Associated Press

FARMINGTON — Davis County sued over a dozen opioid manufacturers Tuesday, becoming the latest of several local governments in Utah to seek damages for costs incurred by the effects of opioid addiction in their communities.

The 143-page lawsuit filed in 2nd District Court alleges opioid makers "have profited off misrepresentation and fraud" for many years, said Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings. He said such scheming has crushed families with unforeseen addiction and heavily burdened county public services that address the consequences.

The lawsuit says 522 Davis County residents died of an opioid overdose from 1999 to 2016.

"This is a case about death, it really is," Rawlings said. "This is a deadly serious case."

Opioid makers have also been sued recently by Salt Lake, Summit, Tooele and Weber counties, while Utah County leaders have publicly explored their litigation options as well. The Utah Attorney General's Office sued some of the same pharmaceutical companies in May.

Rawlings said Davis County is not interested in combining its lawsuit with that of others in the state or nationally.

"We want a Davis County jury to decide this," he said. "That harm has happened here, so we're going to deal with it here."

According to Rawlings, attorneys with his office have been exploring litigation options since last fall. The agency ultimately decided to hire San Antonio-based law firm Phipps Deacon Purnell and Salt Lake-headquartered firm Durham Jones & Pinegar to handle the lawsuit, after those groups encouraged the county to stick to its plan not to join a class-action lawsuit, Rawlings said.

The organizations listed as defendants include Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries; Cephalon; Anesta; Allergan; Watson Laboratories; Actavis; Janssen Pharmaceuticals; Johnson & Johnson; Noramco; Depomed; Endo Health Solutions; AbbVie; Knoll Pharmaceutical Co.; Mallinckrodt; Mylan; Lipocine; Spriaso; McKesson Corp.; Cardinal Health; and AmerisourceBergen Corp.

"The opioid epidemic suffered by Davis County is neither a coincidence nor an accident," the lawsuit says. "It was designed by a group of companies willing to sacrifice individuals in its pursuit of profit."

Dr. Perry Fine, an anesthesiologist with University of Utah Health and a professor at the U., is also listed as a defendant. In response to a different opioid-related lawsuit, Fine told the Deseret News last year that he has never dishonestly downplayed the risks of opioids, calling claims that he did so "absolutely false."

"I've always practiced the highest standard of professionalism and followed the essential obligations of medicine: First, do no harm," Fine said at the time.

Dr. Scott Fishman, Chief of Pain Medicine at UC Davis Health, and Dr. Russell Portenoy, executive director at the New York City-based Metropolitan Jewish Health System Institute for Innovation in Palliative Care, are also listed as defendants.

Some organizations named in the lawsuit have said previously in response to litigation filed in Utah that they are involved in educating Americans about the risks of opioids, have marketed them responsibly, and have included appropriate labeling on packaging.

But Davis County's lawsuit alleges the groups it is taking action against "targeted doctors with a campaign of misinformation" regarding the risk of addiction inherent in long-term opioid use.

"Defendants also relied on key opinion leaders and professional organizations that were, in reality, front groups for opioid manufacturers looking to push their pro-opioid propaganda," the complaint says.

"As a result, the opioid industry's campaign of misinformation permeated and directed medical research and literature, causing widespread opioid use for the treatment of chronic pain."

The lawsuit claims the organizations' messaging campaign was devastatingly successful in Davis County, leading to doctors in the county providing 66.7 prescriptions for opioids per 100 residents in 2016.

"The prescribing rate is ... almost three times as high as it was in 1999," the complaint says.

The lawsuit says the harmful impact of the increase in opioid prescriptions goes beyond overdose deaths themselves, citing federal data showing there were 468 "opioid-related hospitalizations" in 2014.

"The epidemic has also imposed a significant financial burden on Davis County, as a governmental entity, particularly with respect to lost productivity and provision of health care, criminal justice, and other social services for Davis County residents," the complaint says.

Asked about why Davis County filed a lawsuit later than some of the other highly populated counties in Utah, as well as the state itself, Rawlings said he didn't want to sue just because others were doing so.

He said he initially "had a lot of questions, primarily on the liability side," and that after exploring questions about opioid manufacturers that included "what did they know, when did they know it, how much did they know," he came to the conclusion that "they really did make misrepresentations" and decided to proceed with a lawsuit.

Davis County Commissioner James Smith said at a meeting Tuesday giving the go-ahead to the lawsuit that opioid addiction "really is a much bigger issue than I think our people understand," and is a notable strain on the county's social services.

"I have seen firsthand the financial impact of this. So much of our resources are going to (taking) care of the aftermath of this significant problem," Smith said.

Solving opioid addiction, Smith said, will require more than a lawsuit, but also doubling down on preventive efforts in the first place.

"If you're in a hole, the first thing you do is stop digging," he said.

Rawlings said that in recent years, criminal cases related to opioid addiction have been a "huge burden on our criminal division and our police agencies."

Correction: An earlier version misspelled the name of pharmaceutical company Mallinckrodt. The correct spelling is Mallinckrodt, not Mallickrodt.