North Charleston and Charleston County on Friday joined a group of governments taking the makers of opioid pain pills to court over allegations they spread addictive pills across the country, shrouding the dangers and costing communities millions.
North Charleston is the first municipality in the area to sue opioid manufacturers and distributors in state court. The majority of South Carolina's 46 counties have signed on. Charleston County sued in federal court.
The county's complaint follows the templates of other suits filed in federal court. Lawyers for the county are alleging the companies downplayed the risks of opioids, used deceptive marketing and encouraged physicians to prescribe more and more, ultimately causing a public health crisis.
Governments have chosen a handful of different strategies to try to maximize the amount they could win in a settlement. Counties in South Carolina are split between filing in federal and state court.
It is not yet possible to say how much Charleston County, or any other government, would win in a settlement, said Peter Phillips, a Charleston lawyer representing the county. But given how heavily the opioid crisis has hit the Charleston area, lawyers think the damages would be sizable.
"We believe that their damages will be significant because it has hit this county so hard," Phillips said. "We’re really seeing a tidal wave of problems stemming from it.”
A massive group of roughly 2,000 lawsuits consolidated in federal court in Ohio is expected to go to trial in October, thought to be the largest civil action in American history. U.S. District Judge Dan Polster is urging attorneys working in both state and federal court to find a common resolution.
If a global settlement is not reached in Ohio, Charleston County's lawsuit would return to South Carolina for trial.
Ninety-four people died of an opioid overdose in Charleston County in 2017, more than any other South Carolina county, according to information from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
A Drug Enforcement Administration database of millions of prescription opioid sales and shipments, made public recently after two newspapers spent months arguing for its release, shows the volume of pills shipped to North Charleston was relatively modest.
In 2012, the most recent year available, 39 of the pain pills were dispensed for every North Charleston resident. Rates of pills distributed per person were worse in Charleston, with 54, and Mount Pleasant, with 48.
North Charleston's lawsuit is just one more way of addressing the opioid epidemic, a city spokesman said Monday morning.
"The recent lawsuit, filed by the City against various entities responsible for the distribution of opioids, is another effort to address the crisis," Ryan Johnson said in a statement.
He declined to comment any further on pending litigation.
The complaint states the costs of overdoses, addiction, hospitalizations and more are "ongoing" in North Charleston.
Narcan, the opioid overdose reversal drug, was administered in Charleston County 912 times in 2016 and 2017 combined, according to the North Charleston's complaint.
North Charleston will be joining litigation grouped together in Greenville, which names dozens of defendants, including Purdue, Johnson & Johnson, Rite Aid, and Walgreen's. A number of South Carolina health clinics and doctors have also been accused of having a hand in the spread of pills throughout the state.
A handful of other South Carolina cities are suing in federal court, including Georgetown and Chester.
Forty-two counties have sued in either federal or state court, as of the end of June. Abbeville, Clarendon and Saluda are the latest additions to the state court case, joining May 20. Berkeley, Georgetown and Richland counties each joined the federal suit in the last few months.
Charleston County hired lawyers and filed suit later than many of its peers, but this fact should not affect the outcome, said Dwayne Green, another lawyer on the team representing the county.
"Charleston has not been disadvantaged in the fact that it’s behind some," he said. "It’s ahead of a lot of others."
Governments suing the drug industry are already tussling over what portion of the settlement they will be entitled. If a nationwide settlement does happen, lawyers working on the case in Ohio have set out a plan that would divvy up the sum based on the toll the opioid epidemic has taken on each community. Some attorneys oppose that plan.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.