LIHUE — The County of Kauai is planning to sue the manufacturers, marketers and distributors of opioids.
Reminiscent of lawsuits against big tobacco companies, Kauai County will be the first county in Hawaii to pursue this type of litigation.
“This is not about doctors or hospitals,” Mauna Kea Trask, county attorney, said during Wednesday’s County Council meeting.
The council voted unanimously to support Trask’s request.
Council Vice Chair Ross Kagawa said this is something he’s glad Kauai is first on.
“This case, I mean, we know that we have issues and you being the first one to go, I say congratulations and how can we help? This is my question,” Kagawa said.
Trask said over 300 million prescriptions were written nationwide for opioids in 2015. Opioids have claimed 175,000 lives from 1999-2013 and are recognized as one of the worst drug epidemics ever and the deaths are comparable to the rate of deaths from AIDS in the early 90s, Trask said.
“What we’ve seen in the County of Kauai, last year, there was about 520 grams of heroin seized in all of 2017, that’s almost a pound. At this point, this year alone, we’ve had over 580 grams, that’s about a pound and a quarter of heroin (seized), and we’re only in April. We’re expecting two to three times more by the end of the year, which is an amazing, unfortunate statistic,” Trask said.
Research shows, he said, that the medical community is responding to a brilliant marketing campaign.
“In some ways, marketing disguised as education that led them to believe that risks of addiction had been overblown. It led them to believe that they had been allowing patients to suffer needlessly, that they needed to be more compassionate and prescribe opioids more liberally,” Trask said.
“And that campaign was riddled with misinformation.”
Those companies, he said, are some of the largest manufacturing companies in the world, with revenues in the billions.
The amount of damages the county will be pursuing in the suit will be proven during the trial, he said.
“It will include fines, fees, punitive damages and compensatory damages to cover the costs associated with housing, police, fire, health care costs, drug rehabilitation services, criminal justice system costs, Parks and Recreation and the loss of life and quality of life of Kauai’s citizens,” Trask said.
The county will be conducting a nationwide search for special counsel to conduct the litigation. Due to the nature of the lawsuit, Trask said they’ll enter into a contingency agreement and won’t incur costs until a settlement or verdict is reached.
Council Chair Mel Rapozo asked Trask if he knew a ballpark figure of what the settlement or verdict might be.
“One of the reasons this is a matter necessitating special council is because it takes an extreme amount of expertise and organization to really find out, to go through our books and audit everything, identify what our compensatory damages would be,” Trask said.
“It’s the start of a long battle,” Rapozo said after the presentation.
Councilmember Derek Kawakami said he supports this endeavor, because the majority of funds in the Hawaii tobacco settlement were not spent on Kauai.
“Opioid abuse is a serious issue and threat to our community, and the time for action is now,” said Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. in a press release. “To be clear, this is not a fight against hospitals or medical providers. We are pursuing litigation against manufacturers, marketers and distributors of opioid pain medications, who have irresponsibly spread this terrible epidemic upon our community.”
Bethany Freudenthal, courts, crime and county reporter, can be reached at 652-7891 or firstname.lastname@example.org.