Reyes says lawsuit in opioid crisis is coming, but not quite yet

GOP Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said Monday that Utah will be in the mix, either through a lawsuit or negotiated settlement, for some big bucks from Big Pharma, over the drug manufacturers flooding the market with opioid painkillers that have devastated some Utah and U.S. families, killing thousands each year.

Utah’s legal options were mentioned Monday morning by House Speaker Greg Hughes in his 2018 Legislature opening remarks – catching Reyes’ office off guard.

More fully explaining his lawsuit thinking in a quickly-called press conference, Reyes said he has a basically two-prong approach:

  • Working with the current “41 state” group looking to get a settlement out of Big Pharma.
  • If that doesn’t work out in a reasonable time, Utah will sue Big Pharma itself, or with some other groups of states.

Hughes has been a bit frustrated with Reyes, pushing him privately – and now publically – to do something concrete on suing Big Pharma.

Hughes, who, like Reyes, is thinking of running for governor in 2020, has praised several local counties in this state for filing lawsuits against certain drug companies.

Reyes said it is his personal desire to see Utah, or more likely, individual Utah counties, to use some of any settlement funds to help private individuals and families with actual cash or insurance settlements in case of opioid deaths or current addicts who need treatment.

Reyes said it would be unwise for his office to file suit at this time.

Mainly, he said, his office is getting all the pre-litigation materials from the 41-state effort without having to pay big bucks for an outside private counsel to litigate for Utah.

Reyes said while his office has a lot of attorneys, they are too busy to drop all they are doing to take on the massive task of such a large Big Pharma lawsuit.

He said he is well on his way to finding outside counsel, should that ultimately be needed. Outside counsel would work on a contingency basis – being paid for expert witnesses, legal work, and such upfront, and then getting a percent of the final settlement.

Utah has gone down this big settlement road before – getting hundreds of millions of dollars over the years from Big Tobacco in a settlement from 20 years ago.

At one time, the state was getting $35 million to $40 million a year in that tobacco settlement, which has dwindled in recent years as per the original settlement. asked Reyes what kind of settlement funds he’s looking at for the state, but he said he really has no idea at this point.

Ideally, Utah state government would get one pot of settlement money, counties would get another, and out of any county monies could be payments to opioid-affected families or individuals, with the chance that medical insurance firms would also work to help such families.

“It would be foolish” to start a Utah-only lawsuit against Big Pharm now, said Reyes.

He did not put a time frame on when he might run out of working time with Big Pharma and decide to take legal matters into his own hands.

He said it is clear to him that Big Pharma acted in a hazardous manner by pushing opioid drugs – starting in the 1990s – and telling doctors and others that such drugs were not addictive, or even dangerous if prescribed in large amounts.

Large drug manufacturers and distributers “used a number of devices to hide that information,” he said.