Trials to begin in ’19 as settlement is pushed


Associated Press

COLUMBUS

A federal judge with an audacious plan to settle hundreds of lawsuits filed by local governments against the drug industry over the destruction wrought by prescription opioid painkillers has altered his course.

Cleveland-based Judge Dan Polster issued an order Wednesday scheduling three Ohio trials for 2019 – a shift from his earlier plan to try to work out settlements without also preparing for trials.

In his order, the judge says the parties have made “good progress” and notes that lawyers in the case were asking for a litigation track in addition to settlement talks. The hope is that holding some trials can help resolve some of the thorniest common issues in the cases.

The nation’s opioid crisis killed 42,000 Americans in 2016 with the death toll rising even as patients are being prescribed fewer opioid painkillers. The crisis is complicated. Many people becoming addicted to prescription opioids before switching to heroin or deadlier synthetic drugs such as fentanyl; some start with illicit drugs.

Polster wants to forge a deal on business practices and funding to reverse the crisis, which has hit hard across the country but has particularly ravaged communities in Appalachia. The first trials will be in lawsuits from Cleveland and the Ohio counties of Cuyahoga and Summit.

Getting there could be even more complicated than the landmark $206 billion settlement in 1998 between four companies and attorneys general for 46 states and territories. In the federal case, nearly 500 local government entities are also suing. Defendants include drugmakers, distribution companies and companies that manage pharmacy benefits for most Americans.

Paul Hanly, a co-lead counsel for plaintiffs in the case, says setting up a trial schedule is important largely because it means the sides can start exchanging more information and the judge’s rulings on pretrial motions can help set the direction of the case.

He said that even though the first trials aren’t on the calendar for nearly a year, “it’s not a ridiculous proposition” that a settlement could be reached this year.

The settlement talks involve lawyers for a group of about 40 states that are conducting a joint investigation but have not yet sued and other state governments that have sued but in state rather than federal courts.

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