SALT LAKE CITY — A 3rd District judge combined lawsuits against Big Pharma in Salt Lake, Summit and Tooele counties into one case Friday for gathering evidence before trial.
Should those lawsuits go trial, however, they would be contested in the counties where they originated.
The three counties, all of which fall under 3rd District Court jurisdiction, are among more than a dozen Utah counties that have sued the country's largest opioid manufacturers and distributors for their alleged role in the nationwide opioid epidemic. The counties claim Big Pharma engaged in deceptive and misleading marketing, distribution and sales practices.
Judge Richard Mzarik also gave counties outside the 3rd District the option to transfer their cases to Summit or Salt Lake counties. He concluded that although it would save money and be more efficient to consolidate all the cases, he lacks authority over counties outside his judicial district.
Seventeen opioid manufacturers and distributors filed a motion in December to consolidate the Utah cases in Salt Lake County or Summit County — the first in Utah to sue Big Pharma — for issues leading up to trial.
Seven counties, including Summit and Tooele, favor the move, while seven others, including Salt Lake and Davis counties, oppose it.
Purdue Pharma attorney Elisabeth McOmber argued that consolidation makes sense for efficiency and cost-effectiveness and could be done in a way that's fair for all the parties. For example, she said a witness would only have to give one deposition rather than multiple depositions.
McOmber also argued that judges in various districts might make different rulings on the same issues, causing "real problems" leading to "piecemeal" litigation. She said it would be better for one judge to make decisions.
Richard Kaplan, a lawyer for Salt Lake County, said the county intentionally focused its lawsuit on opioid manufacturers rather than distributors because "they're the nerve center, they're the heart of it, they are the architects of the conspiracy that's being alleged here," he said.
The county wants to go to trial quickly and does not want be slowed down by evidence gathering in other cases that came later. He said the county would prefer to handle the case on its own.
"I think we all know a camel is a horse drawn by a committee," he told the judge.
Martin Phipps, a Texas lawyer representing Davis County, argued that the opioid crisis is personal for county attorneys and the residents they represent.
"They want some of that justice. They want to be part of it," he said.
Colin King, an attorney representing Summit and Weber counties and others, said his clients have pragmatic reasons for combining the cases. He said he intends to file at least four more lawsuits, including for some of the state's smallest counties.
"We represent Rich County where there are more cows than people," he said. "We represent Kane County where there's a lot more rocks than people."
King said he wants to consolidate the lawsuits so he doesn't have to file one in each county seat.