A class action lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors is moving toward an October trial, even as the maker of Oxycontin is offering a settlement in the billions.
Rome City and Floyd County – along with Cartersville, Chattooga County and Whitfield County – joined in a 2018 lawsuit that was consolidated into a multi-district litigation case being heard in U.S. District Court in Ohio.
A verdict last week in Oklahoma against some of the same defendants in the Ohio MDL case appears to have several rethinking their legal strategy. Andy Davis, one of the lead attorneys in the local suit, said a gag order remains in effect. However, he provided some perspective on the recent events.
“There’s nothing officially before the court,” Davis said Friday. “What’s being talked about in the media is a proposal somebody has leaked regarding Purdue Pharma, about how they may go about (settling). It’s all still ‘wait and see.’”
The proposal contains formulas for dividing up the money among state and local governments across the country. It’s based on factors such as opioid distribution in a given jurisdiction, the number of people who misuse opioids and the number of overdose deaths.
U.S. District Judge Dan Polster has set Oct. 21 as the date to start the jury trial, with a final pretrial conference scheduled for Oct. 15.
“As this trial in October approaches, I think we will see a lot more maneuvering,” Davis said. “There will be some that will try to settle so they don’t have to go to trial – and there will be some that will say they’re not going to settle.”
There are numerous defendants in the case, including subsidiaries of Watson Pharma Inc., Janssen Pharmaceutica, Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceuticals and three distributors who reportedly account for 80% of the drugs at issue.
Polster is hearing a series of bellwether cases that will set legal precedent for the 2,000 or so local suits like the Northwest Georgia action. Each case then could be sent back to its own district for trial, or Polster may order some kind of national settlement.
Davis said it’s too early to say what that may mean for Rome and Floyd County.
Published reports say a proposed $10 billion to $12 billion settlement of the opioid claims with Purdue Pharma is taking shape. The amount pales in comparison to the cost of the nation’s opioid epidemic.
Government health officials have pegged the economic toll of the prescription opioid epidemic at more than $78 billion per year, according to a 2016 estimate by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The figure includes the costs of medical care, addiction treatment, lost productivity and legal expenses.
Davis said Polster ordered negotiations early in the proceedings and likely favors a settlement – but it’s unclear what would be acceptable.
The Perdue offer is receiving growing pushback from state and local officials who say the proposed deal doesn’t include enough money or accountability.
In Delbarton, West Virginia, Mayor Elmer Spence’s son and nephew are two of the more than 400,000 people in the U.S. who have died from opioid overdoses since 2000. If Purdue’s offer of a settlement is accepted, the town would receive less than $50,000.
“That’s a drop in the bucket for what it’s really cost this community,” he said of a crisis that has driven up costs for police, ambulances and courts.
At the highest end of the proposed settlement payout, Ohio’s Jackson County could receive $2 million from the Purdue settlement, although the actual figure would likely be much lower. As high as that figure might sound, it wouldn’t begin to address the devastation of the epidemic in the county, said Robin Harris, who runs a tri-county addiction treatment office.
Officials have run out of foster homes, the county jail is out of bed space and treatment centers have long waiting lists.
“We’ve seen it devastate just the fabric of the community, starting with the family coming apart,” Harris said Friday.
The company did not answer questions Friday about criticism of the settlement proposal, under which Purdue would file for bankruptcy and transform itself into a “public benefit trust corporation.” The trust’s profits from drug sales would go to the plaintiffs under the company’s settlement offer.