Utah lawmakers advance resolution calling on attorney general to directly sue opioid manufacturers

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SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers Wednesday advanced a resolution urging the Utah attorney general to sue opioid manufacturers "to hold them accountable for the destruction and devastation they have inflicted upon the citizens of the state."

HJR12 requests that Attorney General Sean Reyes "immediately and publicly commit to directly filing suit against prescription opioid manufacturers, instead of joining a suit with other plaintiffs, in order to seek the maximum award for damages from prescription opioid manufacturers for the citizens of the state."

Though resolutions are not binding, the measure's sponsor, Rep. Michael McKell, R-Spanish Fork, told fellow legislators that its passage would serve to implore Reyes that "now is the time. Let's not slow the process. You have full legislative support to move forward with that action today."

"This resolution is almost identical to the resolution (House) Speaker (Greg) Hughes has been working on with counties across the state," McKell told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

"Cache County, Davis County, Salt Lake County, Utah County, Washington County (and) Weber County have already announced plans to file suit against opioid manufacturers."

Those counties have said they want to hold prescription opioid manufacturers accountable for misleading behavior concerning the risk of addiction associated with their products. Nationwide, numerous states are involved in class-action lawsuits against various manufacturers for the same reason, McKell said.

Reyes explained last month that Utah is among 41 states involved in ongoing civil actions against pharmaceutical companies, seeking a settlement but also preparing to sue if its terms are believed to be inadequate.

“Should we feel that at any time during the process leading up to settlement that the manufacturers and distributors aren’t cooperating with the states, then we wanted to have the gun loaded, figuratively, ready to pull the trigger on a lawsuit,” Reyes said at the time.

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, asked for clarification from McKell as to why the resolution states the Legislature's preference is for Utah to strike out on its own in civil litigation against prescription opioid manufacturers. Joining other states could be effective because they're "going to have experts," and "they're going to have information" already lined up for use in court, Ivory said.

"Why (do) we want to go alone instead of leverage all the other work that's going forward?" he asked.

McKell responded that "our chances of a bigger recovery are much better if we go it alone" and that Utah could still draw from supporting information used in other cases.

"If we go it alone … I think the point is we have a much better chance of receiving a higher dollar amount," he said.

Rep. Tim Quinn, R-Heber City, asked McKell whether "we (are) to assume by this resolution that right now this is not the attorney general's plan."

McKell said that wasn't the intent of the measure to communicate that, saying, "I think the attorney general is … considering all options."

"This is the policy direction … we want to urge and nudge the attorney general (to take)," he said.

The resolution also outlines statistics underscoring the scope of prescription opioid addiction, saying "the state experienced a nearly 400 percent increase in deaths from the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs," and "conservative estimates show that 500,000 people will die in the United States over the next decade due to opioid overdose."

McKell said the problem of addiction to prescription opioids is "an absolute crisis in America (and) a crisis that we have in Utah."

"Far, far more needs to be done," he said. "Twenty-four and a half people die every single month in the state of Utah due to prescription drugs."

The committee voted unanimously to favorably recommend the resolution to the full House of Representatives. Email: blockhart@deseretnews.com Twitter: @benlockhartnews

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