Last week, Grand and San Juan counties joined the rest of Utah’s counties in settling a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies for damages caused by the opioid epidemic, just hours before the deadline to join. 

The Grand County Commission declined to join the settlement in late 2021, in favor of seeking a larger payout through the courts. However, at an emergency meeting on Thursday, July 14, County Attorney Christina Sloan told commissioners that the legal outlook for the case looked “very grim” after a recent federal court ruling. 

“Last week, there was a ruling on a very similar case out of West Virginia that found that the distributors had no legal duty to manage or oversee the distribution chain of opioids beyond distributing to legal pharmacies, that public nuisance law did not apply to opioid distribution, and that the damages suffered by the plaintiffs, which were a local city and local county were not caused by the distributors,” reported Sloan. “All claims found for the distributors.”

Legal experts are calling that case, City of Huntington and Cabell County Commission v. Amerisourcebergen Drug Corporation, a ‘resounding win’ for drug companies against claims they are responsible for fueling the opioid epidemic. 

“[I] met with our opioid counsel a couple of days ago, and they are now recommending that we settle,” reported Sloan at the emergency meeting. “They think that we have no chance to win an award in our local court here in Utah.”

State and local governments have filed thousands of lawsuits seeking compensation for damages to their communities from opioid abuse. Grand County, under previous County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald, filed such a suit in 2018. 

Last year, distributors and Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay up to $26 billion dollars to settle these cases. In November 2021, the Grand County Commission declined to join the Utah portion of the settlement “[b]ecause the settlement payment represents a tiny fraction of the damages

that Grand County has suffered as a result of the opioid crisis, and because rulings in other similar state cases on preliminary matters favored local government plaintiffs,” wrote Sloan. 

Last week, the Commission voted unanimously to join the settlement, which will bring the county a percentage of the Utah award, which Sloan estimated to be $15,000 a year for the next 18 years to be used on opioid remediation in Grand County.