The city of Riverton filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against roughly two dozen opioid manufacturers and other companies involved in the creation and distribution of the potent class of painkillers, becoming the latest Wyoming entity to join in a wave of litigation that is sweeping the country.
The Fremont County city joins Casper, Cheyenne, Rock Springs, Carbon County, Sweetwater County and the Northern Arapaho Tribe in taking aim at the companies in federal court. The state of Wyoming, meanwhile, is pursuing its own action against Purdue — the maker of OxyContin and often considered the father of the opioid epidemic — in state court.
Hundreds of counties, town, cities, states and tribes from across the country have filed suits against the companies, alleging that they pushed the opioids on doctors and the public despite knowing of their addictive and dangerous qualities.
The Riverton suit was filed by Jackson attorney Jason Ochs, who’s representing Casper, Cheyenne, Rock Springs and Carbon County.
Purdue and other companies tied up in the litigation, which include Walgreens, Walmart, and the maker of opioids like fentanyl and oxycodone, have all denied any wrongdoing repeatedly.
Like the other federal cases here, the Riverton lawsuit will be transferred to a federal court in Ohio in the coming weeks for pre-trial work up. Ochs had previously told the Star-Tribune that should the suit go to trial, it will do so back in Wyoming.
In Ohio, meanwhile, settlement talks continue to swirl. Purdue and other companies, including the Purdue-founding Sackler family, recently settled with the state of Oklahoma for tens of millions of dollars. But just this week, Johnson and Johnson is on trial in Oklahoma for its role in the crisis. The company, whose subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals makes fentanyl, is the only company in the Oklahoma suit that did not settle with the state.
Both Johnson and Johnson and Janssen Pharmaceuticals are defendants in most of the Wyoming cases, including Riverton’s.
While the Oklahoma settlement was for $270 million, including $75 million from the Sackler family alone, Riverton isn’t expecting a hefty payout should a settlement or jury award come down.
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“We’re not counting on it to be a really money maker, we assume it won’t be,” Riverton Mayor Richard Gard told the Star-Tribune on Tuesday. “We’re just trying to get in there and point out that we’re in support of controlling the drug.”
Gard said Riverton had a similar arrangement with Ochs that Casper did, that the attorney would not be paid unless the town was set to win money in a settlement or as a result of a trial.
Ochs praised Riverton for taking the step to sue the companies and called Fremont County the “epicenter” of opioid abuse in Wyoming.
Indeed, while Wyoming broadly has been spared the worst of the epidemic that has killed tens of thousands of Americans in recent years, Fremont County has had less luck. According to report from the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center from March 2018, there were nearly more prescription opioids distributed in Fremont County between 2014 and 2016 than there are people in the county: There were 906 prescriptions distributed there per 1,000 residents, the fifth-highest rate in the state.
The county had a similarly high rate of prescriptions filled for controlled substances. It also had the highest rate of naloxone used by first responders anywhere in Wyoming. Naloxone is used to counter the effects of opioid overdoses, though it can be used for other medical purposes and its use does not necessarily indicate an overdose.
An annual report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found the county had the third-highest drug overdose mortality rate, tied with Lincoln and Sweetwater counties. Only Carbon and Uinta counties had higher rates.
The drug problem in Fremont County was recently highlighted in federal court in Casper, where Shakeel Kahn was found guilty last week on charges that he essentially ran a pill mill. Many of his patients lived in the Fremont County.
Gard said the city didn’t “like that we have the highest drug problem in the state.”