Richland County is the latest to sue opioid manufacturer in overdose crisis

By the numbers: The opioid crisis in America

Opioid addiction is a fast-growing problem in Missouri and across the country. Here is a look at some alarming statistics. Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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Opioid addiction is a fast-growing problem in Missouri and across the country. Here is a look at some alarming statistics. Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Richland County is the latest local government in South Carolina to file suit against an opioid manufacturer.

The county has sued Purdue Pharma, the company that makes the prescription painkiller OxyContin, federal court filings show. Richland County is also suing six other manufacturers and several opioid distributors, including CVS, Walgreens and Wal-Mart.

The suit was filed May 14 in the northern federal court district of Ohio, part of a national effort by local governments to hold drug companies legally responsible for the effects of overdoses in recent years. Richland is being represented by the Baltimore law firm of Schochor, Federico and Staton, said county attorney Larry Smith.

The county alleges that marketers used false and deceptive advertising to spread the use of prescription opioids, and that distributors failed to take precautions to stop the misuse of the drugs, fueling a nationwide explosion of addiction and abuse.

“By now, most Americans have been affected, either directly or indirectly, by the opioid disaster,” the lawsuit reads. “But few realize that this crisis arose from the opioid manufacturers’ deliberately deceptive marketing strategy to expand opioid use, together with the distributors’ equally deliberate efforts to evade restrictions on opioid distribution.”

Smith told The State that Richland County has not yet asked for a particular amount of money in the suit, since officials are still calculating the impact of the opioid crisis on law enforcement, medical first responders and other financial costs.

“We’re still in the process of trying to identify what the cost to the county is,” Smith said. “We’re trying to get all the stakeholders together... It’s a big undertaking, obviously.”

County Council Chairman Paul Livingston said he hoped the lawsuits could produce a payout similar to the tobacco settlements of the 1990s. Livingston expects council members to be briefed on the latest court filing at their regular meeting on Tuesday.

Richland is one of at least five counties in the Palmetto State with active lawsuits against various pharmaceutical companies, hoping to recoup the cost of the growing number of opioid overdoses in recent years.

Beaufort County was the first to take action in February 2018, after reaching what county officials called a “breaking point.”

Lawyers Ben Shelton and Matt Yelverton, representing Beaufort County in its lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, distributors and physicians, explain the county's reasons for the suit during Tuesday's press conference.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson also filed suit against Purdue on behalf of the state in 2017, saying the company’s “deceptive marketing of its highly addictive opioid products without care for the lives and families it is jeopardizing.” Purdue told the Associated Press at the time the company shares “South Carolina officials’ concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions,” even as Purdue denied the allegations in the lawsuit.

South Carolina is not the only state taking on Purdue. States from Minnesota to Oregon are pursuing suits against Purdue and its owners, the Sacklers, one of the wealthiest families in the nation. In March, Purdue reached a $270 million out-of-court settlement with the state of Oklahoma over its opioid lawsuit.

Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.