As the opioid crisis worsens in South Carolina, several county governments are sueing major drug companies and distributors for damages. The counties' leaders say they've lost millions in police and medical response to overdoses, in health care and in coping with addicts.
Their lawyers just differ about how best to do it.
Seven counties — Jasper, Hampton, Beaufort, Allendale, Williamsburg, Spartanburg and Colleton — have decided to file suit in state court.
Horry, Dillon and Marion counties are suing in federal court. Lawyers for Horry County, which led the state in opioid deaths in 2016 (with 101), said they are filing Thursday, making them the latest to do so. Horry County Council voted in favor of filing the lawsuit Tuesday.
Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said there was no downside to the move because the county's attorneys will work on a contingency basis and will be paid only if the county is awarded money.
"We feel that it's a good chance of winning some litigation, and our intention is that anything we were to win in the litigation would go toward us using in the prevention — and hopefully rehabilitation — of opioid use in our community," Lazarus said.
The crisis of opioid painkiller addiction and overdose has been declared a public health emergency, both by Gov. Henry McMaster and President Donald Trump. There were 616 opioid-related deaths in South Carolina in 2016, the most recent year for which the Department of Health and Environmental Control has statistics.
Charles Whetstone, of Whetstone Perkins & Fulda in Columbia, is part of a team of lawyers representing Horry, Dillon and Marion counties. They chose to file in federal court.
Those cases are sent to multi-district litigation based in Ohio. Joe Rice of Charleston's Motley Rice firm happens to be co-lead counsel for the litigation.
Lawyers for counties suing in federal court are not naming any South Carolina-based defendants. They are suing the wholesale drug company AmerisourceBergen, pharmaceutical company Cardinal Health and McKesson Corp.
John Parker, senior vice president of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, said in a statement on behalf of Cardinal, AmerisourceBergen and McKesson that the notion that distributors are responsible for the opioid epidemic "defies common sense."
"Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation," he said.
Lawyers for the counties suing in state court are naming some of the same out-of-state companies. However, their individual cases also name South Carolina-based physicians and clinics, said Matt Yelverton of Yelverton Law Firm. Yelverton announced Beaufort County's suit Tuesday. The physicians and clinics named in Beaufort County's suit are currently not listed, but Yelverton said he expects their names will be released as the case proceeds.
"We are presenting an entirely different strategy. That is to file in state court and try to keep the case in state court," Yelverton said. "That is something we’re vocal about and feel strongly about."
Yelverton said he and other lawyers representing counties in the state cases expect a battle over where their cases are tried. Because there are defendants based in South Carolina, however, Yelverton said he is confident the team can keep their cases in front of local juries.
Chloe Johnson contributed to this report.