The federal judge overseeing thousands of opioid lawsuits appears poised to approve a pathway for resolving local government claims against the drug industry and dividing settlement dollars nationwide.
“There has to be some vehicle to resolve these lawsuits,” U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster said during a Tuesday morning hearing in federal court in Cleveland.
Drug companies have not yet settled claims brought against them in federal court, but confidential settlement talks have continued since the start of the multi-district case.
Under the proposal put forward by plaintiffs’ attorneys, cities and counties across the country could opt in to a nationwide negotiation class — even if they haven’t filed lawsuits. The communities could decide to accept settlement proposals by a supermajority vote, allocating payouts according to a formula based overdose deaths, pill distributions and addiction cases.
Polster said the proposal wasn’t perfect, but had merit. He said he would rule on it soon, and challenged drug industry attorneys and lawyers for state attorneys general, who oppose the idea, to put forward an alternative.
“It looks like it gets the money to where the harm is,” he said.
Cities and counties contend in their lawsuits that drug makers and distributors sparked the opioid crisis, driving up costs for local government responses to the subsequent wave of addiction and overdoses.
Those cases — now numbering more than 2,000 — have been consolidated in Polster’s court in the Northern District of Ohio. The first set of those cases is on the docket for October, when a jury will hear the claims brought by Cuyahoga and Summit counties.
State attorneys general across the country have sued drug companies in the state courts, outside of federal jurisdiction. More than three dozen state AGs argued in a July 23 letter to Polster that this negotiation class hinders their own efforts.
The chief of the consumer protection division for the Texas Attorney General’s Office, Paul Singer, said the proposal infringed on state sovereignty, interfering with Texas’ ability to decide how to divide settlement dollars.
Polster disagreed, but said he was open to changing portions of the class proposal the state AGs believe would step on state independence.
Jonathan Blanton, an Ohio deputy attorney general, argued Tuesday that local cities and counties could be outvoted by other parts of the country, locking them into settlements with which they disagree.
“Ohio could be bound by the votes of folks who don’t even live here,” Blanton said.
Blanton offered to brief Polster on alternate settlement models state AGs have considered, but not in a public hearing.
Sonya Winner, an attorney for drug distributor McKesson Corporation, called the negotiation class proposal a “mirage,” saying it could add more layers to an already complicated case.
Polster asked opponents more than once to put forward competing ideas for negotiating settlements.
“If you don’t think this model passes legal muster,” he asked during in the hearing, “what are you proposing?”