Pierce County joins Tacoma, others, in federal lawsuit against opioid manufacturers

Pierce County’s decision is a legal move to join a consolidated case involving more than 60 local governments across the country
Pierce County’s decision is a legal move to join a consolidated case involving more than 60 local governments across the country AP Photo

Add Pierce County to the growing list of local governments across the nation taking legal aim at opioid manufacturers.

Last week, County Council members decided to join 60 other entities in seven states, including the cities of Tacoma and Everett, in a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, makers of Oxycontin, as well as other drug companies.

The suit seeks injunctive relief against the drug manufacturers, in the form of a possible settlement that would offset the public costs of the opioid epidemic.

It’s also a matter of the county jumping on a legal bandwagon to meet pending deadlines as the case becomes a national argument.

“We were facing an in-or-out kind of a decision,” said Councilman Derek Young, who had pushed the idea for much of the year. “We have been dealing with the effects of the opioid epidemic. Our system’s been feeling the impacts, particularly in the criminal justice system, but also in our human service and public health systems.”

The county hasn’t filed the lawsuit yet; last week’s vote authorized the Prosecutor’s Office to start the process, which likely will begin with selecting an outside lawyer to oversee the suit.

The vote to proceed passed 4-1. Council members Doug Richardson and Pam Roach, both Republicans, joined Democrats Connie Ladenburg and Young.

Councilman Jim McCune, a Republican, cast the lone no-vote, saying he lacked the information he needed to make a decision.

Much like Tacoma and other jurisdictions, county leaders say the opioid crisis adds pressure on jails and hospitals while fueling the rise of homelessness and mental-health problems. The collective suits blame drug companies for promoting their products without regard for those impacts.

Pierce County’s suit, which is yet to be filed, will aim at that marketing, according to Prosecutor Mark Lindquist.

“Emerging evidence shows that Purdue and other drug manufacturers engaged in a deceptive marketing campaign that fueled the opiate crisis,” Lindquist said in a written statement. “Where there is harm to the people, there should be accountability for the corporations.”

In turn, drug companies say they’re not to blame for the epidemic.

A statement from Purdue Pharma sent to The News Tribune earlier this year denied the allegations in Tacoma’s lawsuit, and said the company is working to combat the crisis.

Roach described the county’s lawsuit as one necessary piece of a larger effort.

“We need to fight back in every single way possible,” she said. “There’ll be many ways to fight back. This is just one of the ways to do it.”

The hoped-for outcome of the case is a national settlement, similar to nationwide litigation against tobacco companies a generation ago.

On Dec. 5, the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, a group of seven federal judges tasked with managing complex litigation, ordered the consolidation of various opioid cases into a single suit to be heard in Ohio, hearing dates to be determined.