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Q&A: Cities, Counties Propose Road To Opioid Settlement

The local governments suing drug companies over the opioid crisis have not reached a settlement in the more than 1,800 lawsuits pending in federal court in Cleveland.

But attorneys for the plaintiffs are proposing a way to divide up any settlement dollars among — possibly — all cities and counties across the country. The attorneys are asking Judge Dan Polster to approve the plan at a June 25 hearing. All Things Consideredhost Tony Ganzer spoke with ideastream’s Nick Castele about the cases, the proposal and if a settlement is likely.

What would the proposal do for any possible settlement with drug companies?

The negotiating class that is being proposed would allow any city or county in the country to choose to participate in settlements with the opioid industry.

There would be a formula set up taking into account overdose deaths, the number of pills dispensed in an area and the number of opioid use disorder cases. All of that would inform how any settlement dollars are divided among cities and counties.

As one example, Cuyahoga County would receive $4.8 million for every $1 billion in settlement dollars.

Now, there hasn’t actually been any settlement yet in this federal case, so we really don’t know in reality how much money would be in the picture. One of the attorneys for the plaintiffs told NPR it could be tens of billions of dollars.

Is the drug industry on board?

Ohio-based Cardinal Health has said “an appropriate settlement could be an option” for concluding the lawsuits. But the company called the negotiation class proposal a “novel and untested approach” and warned that it could lead to years of litigation.

Purdue Pharma released a statement to the New York Times recently saying it’s committed to working toward a resolution, but didn’t say what the company thought of this negotiation class idea.

What are the odds right now that a settlement is even likely? Because lawsuits from Cuyahoga and Summit counties are scheduled to go to trial in just a few months.

Right. There’s a trial still set for October, and the parties are preparing for that trial. They’re collecting evidence, preparing experts, they’re filing motions as if they’re getting ready for trial.

But at the same time, settlement negotiations have also been going on.

Andrew Pollis, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, said [Judge] Polster has pushed for a settlement from the very start of the case.

“He views it as his responsibility to do what he can to obviate the opioid crisis through the legal system,” Pollis said. “And he tried very hard early on to try to get the parties together. And when that wasn’t successful, he seems to have concluded that setting a trial date was probably the only way to get some movement on settlement.”

But there’s also a wrinkle in all this: Drug companies could potentially file for bankruptcy and that could put proceedings on hold.

If this case does go to trial, what arguments do you expect the two sides will present?

We don’t exactly know yet, but we do know what local governments have alleged in their lawsuits. They accuse manufacturers of deliberately deceptive marketing. They say distributors failed to maintain effective controls against diversion and didn’t effectively halt suspicious orders.

They say all of that led to an increase in costs for social services, criminal justice services and addiction treatment. CWRU’s Pollis said this case is different from your typical lawsuit, because the damage is not a specific harm. It’s really a wide-ranging public health crisis.

“For them to then go after the opioid industry to pay for it, it makes logical sense — they caused it, why shouldn’t they have to pay for it?” Pollis said. “But it’s not the kind of typical damage award process that our legal system was ever designed to handle.”

Drug companies have denied the allegations and say they’ll fight them in court.

Copyright 2021 90.3 WCPN ideastream. To see more, visit 90.3 WCPN ideastream.