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Beaufort County hits ‘breaking point,’ sues drug companies, physicians over opioid crisis

Beaufort County filed a lawsuit Tuesday against a slew of drug companies and physicians over their alleged roles in the local opioid crisis. The county joins dozens of other government entities across the nation that have launched similar battles in court.

In January, Beaufort County Council voted to appoint a group of three law firms to look into the possibility of filing a suit over economic losses the county incurred due to the opioid crisis, such as resources spent by the Sheriff’s Office, Coroner’s Office and EMS.

On Tuesday, the three firms filed a suit on behalf of the county against nearly 30 defendants, which include drug manufacturing and distribution companies, such as Johnson & Johnson and McKesson Corporation, four anonymous Beaufort County physicians and five anonymous clinics in the county.

“We have been authorized to follow suit with the grace of Beaufort County Council, which had the foresight to recognize this problem and recognize they have a duty on behalf of their taxpayers to do something and everything they can to end this epidemic, this pandemic and to help spell the crisis,” said Ben Shelton, an attorney with one of the three law firms representing the county.

The 124-page complaint states that Beaufort County “has been required to spend millions of dollars each year in its efforts to combat the public nuisance” created by the drug companies’ “deceptive marketing campaigns.”

“(Beaufort County) has incurred and continues to incur costs related to opioid addiction and abuse, including, but not limited to, health care costs, criminal justice and victimization costs, social costs, and lost productivity costs,” the complaint says.

The county claims the defendants were aware of the addictive nature of certain medications but failed to warn the prescribers and patients.

In Beaufort County, 24 people died due to a drug overdose in 2017 — triple the number of such deaths in both 2015 and 2016, and more than the past two years combined. The number of individuals who died due to opioids last year was triple that of homicides.

County records show that 17 of those deaths were related to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times more powerful than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin; or carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer that had not been tracked before 2016.

“These recent deaths were the breaking point for county officials,” a news release from the law firms said.

The suit is the first of its kind to be filed by a county in the State Court of of South Carolina. Unlike other counties and municipalities across the nation, the law firms decided not to file Beaufort County’s suit in federal court.

“We have decided that it should be left in the hands of the people of the counties that have been affected by this epidemic to decide exactly how these manufacturers, distributors and doctors should be held accountable for the scourge they have unleashed on our state,” said Matt Yelverton, another attorney representing the county.

The complaint does not name the physicians being sued, instead referring to them as “John Doe.” But, it does state that the physicians are “licensed to practice medicine in South Carolina, have their primary place of business in Southern Beaufort County, South Carolina, are citizens of South Carolina and dedicate a large portion of the practice to prescribing opioid medications.”

According to Shelton, the coalition of lawyers representing the county are “taking an abundance of caution” and anticipate that the litigation and discover process will allow them “to discover additional facts that will lead to later naming the responsible actors.”

The coalition of lawyers are also representing six other counties in South Carolina, including Hampton, Allendale, Jasper, Williamsburg, Orangeburg and Barnwell counties. However, Beaufort County is the only one yet to file a formal suit.

“Every single county has a distinct and separate case, every single county has distinct and separate damages ... so it’s very important that the citizens of Beaufort County understand that we’re here to recoup their lost wages — wages that are not being made in Beaufort County because people are addicted, people are dead — and that's lost tax revenues, that’s long term damages,” Shelton said.

Shelton said there is no way to know the exact scope of the damages incurred by Beaufort County until after the discovery period of the litigation process. Still, the suit estimates the damages to be “millions each year” from additional expenses, lost revenue and lost tax base.

“The cost to the county — and when I say to the county I mean taxpayers — that’s money that could have been spent on roads, on other things our government provides to the taxpayers,” Yelverton said. “That money has been taken away from taxpayers to treat a crisis that was created by a knowingly deceptive marketing campaign, and we're going to do everything we can to get that money back for the taxpayers of Beaufort County and every other county that retains us across the state of South Carolina.”

The lawyers said they expect this to be “quite a long fight” and not a short process.

In August 2017, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson announced that the state has filed a lawsuit against Oxycotin maker Purdue Pharma, who is also named in Beaufort County’s suit.

Then in December 2017, Gov. Henry McMaster declared a statewide public health emergency for South Carolina’s opioid epidemic.

The governor also issued an executive order for the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services to limit opioid prescriptions for acute and post-operative pain to a maximum of five days for state Medicaid recipients and asked the South Carolina general assembly to pass legislation making the five-day limitation a statewide law for all opioid prescriptions.

Maggie Angst: 843-706-8137, @maggieangst

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