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Utah could have dueling lawsuits over the opioid epidemic

SALT LAKE CITY -- House Speaker Greg Hughes has been drafting counties across Utah to join together and sue pharmaceutical companies over the opioid epidemic.

But the effort might be stepping on the toes of the Utah Attorney General's Office, which is taking a different tactic on potential litigation.

Speaker Hughes, R-Draper, said in a recent interview with FOX 13 that he has seen the impact of the opioid epidemic as "Operation Rio Grande" is carried out.

"The fountainhead of so much of this addiction, so much of this open-air drug market and drug trafficking started with prescription painkillers," he said.

The Utah Dept. of Health has reported as many as 30 people die every month in the state from heroin or opioid overdoses. Stunned by those numbers, the House Speaker has been working to get counties across Utah together to sue "Big Pharma" over it.

"I'm too impatient to move the way government typically moves and that is at a glacial pace," Hughes said. "I really think we should know enough that we should be taking that next step forward."

Recently, Salt Lake and Utah counties announced plans to pursue litigation. The move bypasses Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, whose office has been pursuing a potential lawsuit alongside 41 other states.

"We've spoken privately and publicly and have a different idea on how to approach this," Hughes told FOX 13. "I just think it's time to act right now."

Spencer Austin, the chief deputy of the Utah Attorney General's Office, said Speaker Hughes can take whatever position he wants. However, the office believes its approach will yield a better result.

Austin said suing alone costs more money, the counties would likely have to hire outside counsel, and the payout may not be as large as it would be in a multi-state settlement.

"Utah has notoriously given low jury verdicts," Austin said Wednesday. "It's not California. It's not Texas."

The multi-state approach has resulted in lower legal costs and the pharmaceutical companies have already approached the idea of settling before any lawsuit is even filed, Austin said.

"The state's going to be far better off from a perspective of what we're going to recover on behalf of the state and the residents of the state," he said.

Both sides agreed they are working for the same goal which is to crack down on the opioid epidemic. They just have different ideas of how to get money for it and ensure change.

Hughes said he believes getting discovery through the course of a lawsuit would yield more information about opioid prescribing and marketing practices, and result in behavioral changes.

"If you're consolidating it into one case and one settlement, I think Utah's circumstances are lost in that effort," the Speaker said. "I think we have a far better way of holding the manufacturers accountable."