In October 2020, witnesses from Bexar County are set to testify in Texas’ first trial to test plaintiff’s arguments asserting the pharmaceutical industry and its affiliates knowingly concealed the dangers of opioids from consumers for profit.

Bexar County is seeking $1 billion in damages from opioid manufacturers and distributors for the impact the opioid epidemic has had locally. 

At a press conference Tuesday to announce the trial date, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said there were 1,369 opioid-related deaths between 2011-16 in Bexar County, and more than 3,025 babies were born addicted to opioids between 2009-16. 

“It is important that Bexar County take the lead in this case” because County officials want any money received in a potential verdict or settlement to come directly to local programs and services, Wolff said.

T.J. Mayes, a junior partner at Phipps Deacon Purnell, which filed the suit on behalf of the county in May 2018, said that the $1 billion sought is “conservative” considering it’s a preliminary estimate of cost County taxpayers incurred as a result of the distribution of more than 326 million prescription pain pills in Bexar County from 2006 to 2012.

“When you consider we are talking about 10 years in the past and as many as 20 years in the future, that puts the amount we are requesting into perspective,” Mayes said. “The amount includes damages that have been incurred by the County thus far, and future costs.”

Dozens of Texas counties and cities have filed opioid lawsuits that are assigned to Harris County District Court Judge Robert Schaffer. At a hearing Friday, Schaffer chose Dallas County to testify first, and the defendants chose Bexar County to testify second.

“If Dallas decides to settle, Bexar County will be the first case heard,” Mayes said, noting Bexar County has no intention of settling “for pennies on the dollar.” “There is an accountability element to our argument of

T.J. Mayes, junior partner at Phipps Deacon Purnell Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

wanting go to trial because it’s not only a financial crisis locally, it’s a humanitarian crisis.”

The law firm is working to identify local witnesses who can attest to the County’s struggles as a result of the epidemic. Bexar County has the third-highest rate of opioid-related drug overdose deaths per capita in the state of Texas, according to the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, and almost a third of the state’s cases of neonatal abstinence syndrome, a disease in which babies are born with opioid withdrawal because of their mother’s opioid use during pregnancy. 

Mayes said the local firm representing the County is “working 40 hours a week to identify witnesses who will best relay the story of what has happened in our community,” noting this includes medical professionals, educators, and parents. 

The law firm is working the case on a contingency basis, and would keep around 35 percent of any financial settlement or award, with the rest going to the County.

Wolff noted that when there were similar lawsuits against tobacco companies in the 1990s, settlement money was tied up at the state level, with barely any making it to the County. “[The lawsuit includes] an amendment that states all proceeds will go directly toward local treatment efforts,” he said.

More than 60 pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors are named as defendants in the case, including Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc., Advanced Pharma Inc., and Johnson & Johnson. 

Numerous local governments across the nation and most states have sued Big Pharma companies over the opioid epidemic. An Oklahoma judge is scheduled to rule in August in one closely watched case against Johnson & Johnson that alleges the company contributed to the crisis with aggressive marketing tactics. Other drug companies in the suit settled with the state rather than go to trial.

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.