Salt Lake County gets $57M for ‘carnage’ caused by opioid crisis
County leaders laud ‘landmark’ settlement, l noting it is one of the largest civil litigation settlements in Salt Lake County’s history
Salt Lake County will receive nearly $57 million from opioid manufacturers and distributors for their alleged roles in the opioid crisis.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Sheriff Rosie Rivera jointly announced Tuesday that the county will receive just under $57 million as part of its collective share of the overall settlement reached between 46 states and thousands of local governments, and several opioid manufacturers and distributors.
The county leaders called it a "landmark" settlement, with Gill noting it is one of the largest civil litigation settlements in Salt Lake County's history.
Gill announced the lawsuit against the pharmaceutical industry in 2018, stating that opioid drug makers "downplayed the serious risk of addiction" and pushed pills to Utah doctors and patients.
It wasn't long before the county was overrun with opioids, Wilson said, affecting all walks of life.
"And what we learned along the way is that the opioid manufacturers, distributors and others, many knew of the addictive nature and did nothing, and in fact in many ways were predatory," she said.
In July 2021, opioid manufacturer Johnson & Johnson and three of the country's largest drug distributors — AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson — agreed to pay $26 billion to states to resolve thousands of lawsuits over their roles in the opioid crisis, though they admitted no wrongdoing.
In February, 27 of Utah’s 29 counties, during some 11th-hour negotiations, joined with the state to participate in the settlement.
Gill announced Tuesday that the state will receive $133 million of the overall settlement proceeds while the counties will split an additional $133 million. Salt Lake County, which Gill said is the most heavily impacted by the crisis based on overall numbers, will receive about 43% of the settlement, or just under $57 million. The division of county money is based on a formula that includes the number of deaths, number of pills distributed, the rate of opioid use disorder and population.
At the time the original lawsuit was filed in 2018, Gill said almost half of all overdose deaths in Utah were in Salt Lake County. The county tallied 531 deaths during a 12- to 18-month period.
"This is the carnage that has been left behind by Big Pharma. This is the carnage and devastation of communities that they were not willing to take responsibility for. This is their responsibility that was being passed on to taxpayers in the loss of life, the grief and the heartache and the overburdening of our social services system. Today's settlement is a partial downpayment of that carnage that they've left behind and an accountability so our taxpayers do not have to do that, and maybe we can start to move toward healing as a community," the district attorney said.
The settlement will also make an additional $2.5 million available for legal fees so taxpayers won't suffer the burden of the lengthy legal battle.
It is unknown exactly when the county will start seeing any of that money. Gill is hopeful the first payment will be received in the next month or two, followed by a second payment in the summer. From there, the payments will be spread out over the next 18 years.
"It is not yet determined where that money will be spent. But we know that 85% of the funding is required toward opioid abetment. That's education, that's programs that support youth and families in this journey. Prevention, again, is so key," Wilson said.
From a law enforcement perspective, Rivera said the settlement means a lot to the community and police officers on the street who see firsthand what happens when someone overdoses and the impact it has on families.
"The impact on the families is incredible. The babies being born to addiction from opioids is incredible. Our communities have suffered so much," she said. Most important, the sheriff said the money from the lawsuit will be used to save lives, and "that's really what we care about."
"We have to hold those who caused this crisis accountable, and maybe this will help them understand what has happened in the last 10 years and how many lives we've actually lost due to this opioid crisis," Rivera said.
Wilson called the settlement an important step but noted "it is not enough."
"I want you to know that the county's work is not over. And the county remains in active litigation," Gill said, noting there was still ongoing legal action with several companies, including Purdue Pharma.
"We had a group of corporations that were financially greedy. And they victimized communities," Gill continued, while also praising Wilson and the local leaders of the 27 counties who collectively said, "'Enough is enough.' That this kind of devastation for purely greed and profiteering will not be tolerated and it will not be allowed to be passed on to the taxpayers and to grieving families which are suffering from the collateral impact of their greed.
"That's why this litigation was so important."