A $572 million ruling against drug manufacturer Johnson & Johnson in Oklahoma could eventually lead to a global settlement, which includes local counties, said an attorney representing local government in a similar lawsuit.
An Oklahoma judge ruled the drug manufacturer helped ignite the opioid crisis through deceptive marketing tactics. Purdue Pharma, which manufactures OxyContin, was also named in the lawsuit. The company settled with the state in March for $270 million.
“They want to try to settle these things, and I think that’s where the pressure has gone,” said attorney Robert Peirce, who is representing regional counties including Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland.
Among the four counties, 1,247 overdose deaths were reported between 2015 and 2018, according to OverdoseFreePA. Addiction has a far-reaching impact on county government and taxpayers, including the cost of incarceration, probation, autopsies, Children & Youth Services and education programs.
“Unless you are directly affected, you don’t see the cost on the families, you don’t see the cost on the children who are taken away from their families because their parents are addicted, you don’t see the impact on our court system,” said Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi.
The opioid crisis costs Washington and Fayette counties millions of dollars every year, commissioners said. About 80% of incarcerated people were charged with crimes related to addiction in Washington County, Maggi said, and about 90% of crimes in Fayette County involve drug abuse, said Fayette County Commissioner David Lohr.
About 70 to 75% of the Fayette County annual budget pertains to addiction, Lohr said.
“It’s just massive. I don’t think people really understand the scope of the cost,” he said.
Lohr said he anticipates the lawsuit could be tied up in court for many years. He hopes that the county can work with pharmaceutical companies to reach a settlement for a quicker resolution, suggesting drug manufacturers could fund a location in Fayette County to provide treatment and create additional jobs for residents.
Pierce said attorneys have received no response to the proposal from Fayette County. A global settlement would likely involve a combination of financial payouts to governments and funding for treatment facilities, he said.
The ruling publicized the manufacturing company’s involvement in the crisis, he said.
“It basically let the public know that all these manufacturers were very much involved,” he said. “It’s pretty hard for even a layperson to say, ‘Opioids aren’t going to hurt you. Opioids aren’t habit forming.”
Commissioners said filing the lawsuit was not a decision they took lightly, but felt was necessary to recoup costs to the taxpayers.
“I think that they obviously admitted that they are part of the problem by wanting to settle, and we just have to see how this plays out from here,” Fayette County Commissioner Vincent Vicites said. “But we are in a position in Fayette County to collect on these damages, and it’s only fair to the taxpayers.”
The damages would return to Fayette County and help mitigate addiction problems in the future, he said.