The bellwether cases in Rome and Floyd County’s lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors are set to go to trial Oct. 21 in a federal district court.
Dec. 13 is the deadline for closing statements and final instructions to the jury, according to the latest, May 1, order by U.S. District Judge Dan. A. Polster of the Northern District of Ohio.
Rome attorney Andy Davis, who’s taking the lead on the local cases with attorney Bob Finnell, has said the legal decisions in the Track One cases will be applied to all the others in the class action suit.
Polster consolidated the lawsuits filed by cities, counties and states into a single multidistrict litigation case in December 2017 to speed resolution.
Rome and Floyd joined a suit with Chattooga and Whitfield counties and the city of Cartersville in May 2018. They’re seeking damages to fund increased costs for police, medical and other services and to fund local programs to address the epidemic.
A new report through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s opioid assessment tool states that 32 people died of opioid overdoses in Floyd County in the five years from 2013 to 2017. That’s a rate of 10.7 per 100,000 people.
The rate is 11.5 statewide and 16.4 nationally, and it appears to be trending up. Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and North and South Carolina are among the states with what the Centers for Disease Control call “a statistically significant increase” in deaths from 2016 to 2017.
However, the tool notes that there are variations in how overdoses are reported and estimates should be used with caution. Last year, the USDA tool indicated 68 Floyd County deaths between 2012 and 2016 – a rate of 22.2 per 100,000. The state’s rate was 16.8 for those five years and the national rate was 22.5.
Roughly 1,500 cases are part of the consolidated case in Ohio.
The plaintiffs argue that manufacturers knew the painkillers such as oxycontin and hydrocodone were highly addictive – but they downplayed the risk and aggressively marketed them to physicians. Other elements include an accusation that distributors failed to monitor sales, as required, and didn’t report suspicious orders.
In Floyd County, prescriptions for opioid painkillers such as oxycodone and morphine were issued at a rate of 153.3 for every 100 residents in 2016, according to a CDC study.
About 500 cases are proceeding separately in states. The first trial, in Oklahoma, started last week.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter’s opened the state’s case against consumer products giant Johnson & Johnson and several subsidiaries by saying the powerful painkillers have led to the “worst manmade public health crisis” in U.S. history.
“This crisis is devastating Oklahoma,” Hunter said, adding that opioid overdoses killed 4,653 people in the state from 2007 to 2017.
Lawyers for Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson say the products the company manufactured were not just legal, but were heavily regulated. Janssen attorney Larry Ottaway told the judge that the drugs are important because they can help people manage debilitating pain.
“Serious chronic pain is a soul-stealing, life-robbing thief. It leads to depression. It leads to suicide. People can’t take care of their own basic functions,” Ottaway said. “You will hear from doctors, who practice right here in Oklahoma, some of those stories.”
The Oklahoma case is significant because it’s the first to go to trial and could help shape negotiations to resolve the consolidated case. Two companies, OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals , settled with Oklahoma ahead of the trial.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.