LIHUE — Kauai County may soon join a federal class action lawsuit seeking tens of billions of dollars on behalf of millions of people affected by the national opioid crisis.
The county filed a lawsuit in Fifth Circuit Court last month against over a dozen of the nation’s largest pharmaceutical manufacturers and their executives over their role in the opioid addiction epidemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans over the past two decades.
On Friday, that lawsuit was removed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii at the request of one of the defendants, CVS Health Corporation.
According to court documents submitted by the corporation’s lawyers, CVS also intends to have the case transferred to a class action suit that has bundled over 1,500 federal lawsuits against makers and distributors of the painkillers under the stewardship of a single judge.
In December 2017, with civil cases against opioid manufacturers rapidly proliferating across the country, a federal judicial panel consolidated 64 of the lawsuits under a single case in the Northern District of Ohio. A year-and-a-half later, the litigation has ballooned to nearly 2,000 federal court cases, brought on behalf towns cities, counties and hospitals.
Now, the County of Kauai could join that ever-growing list of plaintiffs, but according to the attorney representing the county in the lawsuit, Kauai residents may be better served if the case is tried locally.
John Choi, a personal injury lawyer with the Honolulu firm Hawaii Accident Law Center who originally filed the civil complaint in circuit court in Lihue, said the case can only be removed to federal court if none of the defendants are based on Kauai.
“Unfortunately for them, we have local defendants,” he said.
Choi would not elaborate on the statement, among the dozens of corporations named in the 300-page complaint he authored, only two are licensed to do business on Kauai and both are based elsewhere in the country. Only one defendant, a former doctor, is local.
In 2012, Harold Charles Spear M.D., was sentenced to 12 years and seven months in prison on multiple counts of illegally dispensing controlled substances, according to court records. He pleaded guilty to four counts of dispensing controlled substances in a Hawaii case and one additional similar charge in Alabama.
“Spear dispensed dozens of prescriptions for controlled substances outside the course of usual medical practice and without a proper medical evaluation,” Choi wrote in the complaint.
Whether the single defendant will provide a solid enough basis to remand the case back to the Fifth Circuit Court in Kauai remains to be seen. A federal judge will rule on the matter in about a month, according to Choi, who said the decision could go either way.
“It may be inevitable, but we’ll see,” he said.
According to Choi, the county’s interest will be better served by filing in a local jurisdiction rather than joining the multi-district litigation in federal court.
“We want the specific damages of the County of Kauai to be decided by county residents,” Choi said in an email shortly after he filed the lawsuit in May.
On Monday, Choi said he will fight to keep the lawsuit in Fifth Circuit Court in order to allow those who understand the impact the opioid crisis has had on the local community to make decisions on the case.
“Kauai has been especially impacted by the opioid epidemic,” he said.
In the complaint, Choi wrote that high dose opioid prescriptions among Kauai residents “have been particularly concerning.”
“Kauai’s dispensed opioid prescription rates have been consistently higher than the state average for the past 11 years,” the complaint says. “Between 2009 and 2013, drugs and medications were the underlying cause of death for 88% of all poisoning deaths in Hawai’i. During this time, the County of Kaua’i averaged around 5 overdose cases per year.”