Over 600 Lawsuits Against Opioid Companies Become One Federal Court Case
(Summer 2018) U.S. District Judge Dan Polster is in charge of a massive court case consisting of over 600 lawsuits lodged by various government entities. When combined, the suits are demanding billions of dollars to confront the U.S. opioid epidemic. The plaintiffs allege that, for over two decades, drug makers have widely advertised their opioid products as virtually non-addictive, even when prescribed for a patient’s long-term pain management.
In addition to claiming that drug makers exaggerated the advantages of opioids and glossed over the chances of addiction these drugs may cause, the litigation also accuses drug distributors of not screening well enough for suspicious orders. Companies named in the suits include Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma and Ohio’s Cardinal Health. The drug manufacturers, on the other hand, contend that medications such as Oxycontin® have been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and have genuine medicinal value.
The huge case is being tried in Cleveland, Ohio and names a dozen drug makers and distributors. Polster is urging both sides to reach an agreement. The judge’s aim is for the parties to arrive at an expedient settlement on both proper business practices and a sum of money paid by the drug companies that will be dedicated to reversing opioid addiction and overdose deaths. He hopes this will occur this year, so action can be taken sooner rather than later to reduce the opioid plight.
The initial cases to be heard, brought by Cleveland and Ohio’s Cuyahoga and Summit counties, are slated for March 2019. Decisions in these three suits, if a settlement is not reached before the court date, may give attorneys a forecast of what to expect in later cases.
In anticipation of the suits potentially going to trial, Judge Polster has called for submission of close to a decade’s worth of statistics gathered by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) regarding prescription drug purchases for the six states with cases scheduled for trial. The DEA agreed to share a subset of the numbers, but Polster says all the information is required for the cases being heard.
Parties on both sides of the case are continuing to meet in hopes of coming to an agreement outside the courtroom. Settlement negotiations also include counsel for approximately 40 states that have not yet filed suit and other state governments that have filed suit in state (rather than federal) courts.
Mike DeWine, Ohio Attorney General and Republican candidate for governor, supports Polster’s desire to draw the two sides together for a settlement. DeWine also brought suit against the drug manufacturers. Although he has been present at negotiations in Cleveland’s federal court, DeWine’s suit will be heard by a Ross County judge.
Across the Ohio River, Kentucky is suing Cardinal Health, claiming the company is partly responsible for the rising tide of opioid abuse. The suit declares that Cardinal Health sold 63.6 million doses of prescription opioids between February 1, 2016 and January 31, 2017. This number comprises a little more than one-fifth of all the doses dispensed by Kentucky pharmacies over this time frame.
As large as this federal case is, it continues to grow. Lawsuits from 30 California counties are also slated to be consolidated into the case being heard in Cleveland. These plaintiffs claim that drug companies and distributors are responsible for an opioid crisis in California. In 2015, over 24 million opioid prescriptions were issued to California residents, with Sacramento County receiving the largest share at 1.2 million. California’s Marin County was also hit hard; per the County Counsel’s Office, more opioid prescriptions were written in 2016 for Marin County residents than the number of households that exist within county lines.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is placing the U.S. Justice Department’s weight behind the plaintiffs in this massive suit by filing a statement of interest. The document will contend that the federal government spent large amounts of money fighting the opioid crisis through increased funding for both social services and law enforcement and is now pursuing reparation. This federal backing may create more pressure on the drug companies to settle ahead of the first trial date.
This large federal court case is being likened to a 1998 ruling against tobacco companies that gave a total of $206 billion to all but four U.S. states over a quarter-century timeline.
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