Following a hearing on Friday in Salt Lake, a Third District Court judge has ruled that Summit County’s massive lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors will be joined with similar lawsuits filed in Salt Lake and Tooele Counties for pre-trial activity.
Judge Richard Mrazik ruled that he could only order the consolidation in the Third District, but left the door open for several other Utah counties to join their litigation with Summit County’s.
At the hearing on Friday, Judge Mrazik was asked how to proceed with a complicated legal landscape that has emerged from a multitude of lawsuits filed in Utah against a long list of Big Pharma manufacturers and distributors.
The judge noted that at least 12 lawsuits have been filed from 14 Utah counties. Summit County was the first to file a suit last year, contending that it and other local governments have been harmed by a national opioid crisis. The county alleged that the defendants, going back about 20 years, have engaged in a deceptive marketing campaign that promoted opioids for chronic long-term pain and downplayed the risks of addiction.
Judge Mrazik said that 17 drug-manufacturing defendants made a motion to consolidate the lawsuits.
Seven of the counties filing suits, including Summit, indicated they had no objection to the motion. But seven other counties, including Salt Lake and Davis Counties, objected.
The judge heard arguments in a courtroom packed with about 35 to 40 attorneys. Speaking for the pharmaceutical defendants, attorneys Elizabeth McComber and Jesse Krannich contended that consolidation would save the resources of the court, it would avoid inconsistent rulings from judges, and could conduct the legal Discovery process without unnecessary duplication.
Richard Kaplan, representing Salt Lake County, said his client wants to move quickly, and doesn’t want to wait for other counties. He said consolidation would be a committee-like structure, adding that a camel is a horse designed by a committee.
Judge Mrazik ruled that the benefits of consolidation, if carefully managed by a judge, would outweigh any prejudice that would result for a litigant. But he felt that under Utah law, he could only order a consolidation for the lawsuits within the Third District.
Afterward, Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson told us the order only applies to the proceedings before a trial.
“This ruling that Summit County stipulated to was for purposes of having one judge decide pre-trial motions, discovery disputes, dispositive motions, all of the things that occur prior to the time you have a trial,” Olson explained. “Once the case is ready for trial the cases will all return to the jurisdictions in which they were originally filed for trials by the local juries.”
She commended the judge for coming to a careful decision.
“It was an interesting discussion today on the interplay between the rules of simple procedure and the statutes and what may be possible for managing a big mass Tort case like this under our state rules,” Olson continued. “I was very impressed with Judge Mrazik with his command of the courtroom, his command of the issues and the law in the various ways it came into conflict with itself. I agree that his ruling was a conservative and correct application of those rules.”
The judge did leave the door open for the lawsuits in other venues, noting that the defendants could still ask for those suits to be moved to the Third District.
“I think it was a nudge for the manufacturer defendants who started this consolidation action to file motions for change of venue in each of those non-third district jurisdictions,” Olson said. “Those judges can make rulings based upon what they think is the best use of judicial resources and they can undertake the same cost-benefit analysis that Judge Mrazik undertook today.”
The consolidated Third District suit will be heard by Judge Mrazik, meaning the proceedings will take place at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake.
“It’s not uncommon for Summit County cases to be heard down here if that’s more convenient for the parties or sometimes even for the court,” Olson explained. “So, I don’t view that as being out of the ordinary at all that Judge Mrazik would be assigned to the Summit County case and that many of the live legal proceedings would actually occur down in Salt Lake County in his courtroom.”