COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina's high court has appointed a single judge to handle any lawsuits related to opioids in the state system.

On Thursday, the state Supreme Court assigned Circuit Court Judge Perry Gravely to the task. Gravely, based in Pickens, has been on the circuit bench since 2015.

Lawsuits have been piling up as counties across the state have moved to sue drug manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies and doctors amid the opioid epidemic. In a myriad of cases, counties across the state have said they spend millions of dollars each year for diagnosis and treatment, first responders and family services related to opioid painkillers like OxyContin and Percocet.

Since many of the cases argue the same points, the court has empowered Gravely to consolidate some pretrial matters and streamline the process as much as possible.

The county lawsuits follow action taken last year by state Attorney General Alan Wilson, who announced that South Carolina had sued Purdue Pharma, accusing the OxyContin maker of violating the state's Unfair Trade Practices Act. Gov. Henry McMaster declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency last year, signing executive orders requiring health officials to place a five-day limit on initial opioid prescriptions for acute and post-operative pain management.

The governor has also created a taskforce of law enforcement and state agency officials who will develop a state plan to combat the issue.

In 2016, more than 20,000 people died from synthetic opioids in the U.S. This number includes overdoses from heroin, fentanyl and prescription drugs. In South Carolina in 2015, more people were killed in opioid-related overdoses (594) than homicides (311), according to the South Carolina Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services.

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