The local law firm that filed a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors argued before a judge in Houston on Friday afternoon that Bexar County should be the first trial heard in Texas as part of combined multi-district litigation. 

T.J. Mayes, junior partner at Phipps Deacon Purnell, which filed the suit on behalf of the county, said that the devastating impact of the epidemic locally, coupled with the county’s “aggressive” response in addressing the issue, makes it well-positioned to lead the litigation that aims to hold accountable companies that supplied millions of prescription pain pills to local residents.

“Opioid manufacturers and distributors absolutely knew the market was oversaturated with pills, but they didn’t do anything about it because they were making so much money. All the while people were dying because of it,” Mayes said. “We are building a detailed damage model about damages that have been incurred thus far, and what they will cost to mitigate in the future.”

More than 326 million prescription pain pills were supplied to Bexar County residents from 2006 to 2012, totaling 149,000 pills a day, enough for 28 pills per person per year, according to information published by the Washington Post

The Post, as a result of a court order, gained access to a database maintained by the Drug Enforcement Agency that tracks the path of every pain pill sold in the United States. The database aims to hold accountable companies and distributors that provided more than 76 billion pills throughout the United States, fueling a public health epidemic that has killed more than 100,000 people from 2006-2012.

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; the county also has 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. 

Since forming in summer 2017, the City/County Joint Opioid Task Force has worked to be on the forefront of addressing the impact of the opioid epidemic locally, said Jennifer Sharpe Potter, professor in the psychiatry and anesthesiology departments at UT Health San Antonio and task force chair. “When we learned that opioid misuse was an emerging problem, we got ahead of it.”

Because of the work of the task force, Potter agrees that San Antonio is primed to be the first case heard in the upcoming multi-district litigation hearings.

“We have a team of people in San Antonio who are passionate and knowledgable about the topic and wanted to make a difference,” Sharpe-Potter said. “Because of this, we were able to capitalize on the resources available [to combat the issue], which put us ahead of many of the other cities and counties throughout the state.”

Mayes said dozens of counties throughout the state joined the lawsuit, including Harris, Nueces, and Lubbock, and while some attorneys and clients are in favor of settling with pharmaceutical companies before going to trial, Phipps Deacon Purnell wants to try the case.

“We want pharmaceutical companies to be held accountable. There is value in having people on the witness stand answering for their actions — a settlement would prevent that,” Mayes said, noting manufacturers and distributors knowingly provided patients with misinformation on the relative risks and benefits of opioids, and used marketing campaigns to single out specific populations. “We are Military City, USA, and marketing campaigns singled out veterans, which makes it an even more important issue for San Antonio to address.”

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