A federal judge who is presiding over lawsuits by cities and counties across the U.S. against opioid painkiller manufacturers says he wants the case to have “a meaningful impact” on the addiction epidemic.
Cleveland-based U.S. District Judge Dan Polster told attorneys representing drug makers and the governments that would like to see the case end with a settlement that does more than “just moves money around,” the Insurance Journal reported last month.
Pharma giants Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson were among the opioid manufacturers represented in the courtroom.
Last December, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated more than 200 cases filed in courts across the country and assigned them to the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Division and Judge Polster’s courtroom in Cleveland.
Before dealing with the question of financial damages, Polster says he hopes the lawsuits will lead to major changes in the way opiate painkillers are distributed and used.
“My objective is to do something meaningful to abate this crisis and to do it in 2018,” he said at last month’s hearing. “What I’m interested in doing is not just moving money around, because this is an ongoing crisis.
“What we’ve got to do is dramatically reduce the number of the pills that are out there and make sure that the pills that are out there are being used properly. Because we all know that a whole lot of them have gone walking and with devastating results.”
Counties, cities and states have filed lawsuits in state and federal court against the producers and distributors of opioid-based painkillers, claiming that deceptive marketing practices and false claims about the drugs’ addictive nature have fueled an epidemic that has driven many patients to turn to heroin as a low-cost substitute. Local governments have felt the impact in the form of an increasing death toll, and higher social service, public safety and criminal justice costs.
Defendants in the National Prescription Opiate Litigation include Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Johnson and Johnson, Endo Health Solutions, Allergan, Cardinal Health and McKesson Corporation among others.
Last September, a bipartisan coalition of 41 state attorneys general jointly filed subpoenas to major opioid distributors and manufacturers as part of their investigation into prescription drug marketing and distribution and its role in the national opioid crisis. The subpoenas were served to Endo International; Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd./Cephalon Inc. and Allergan Inc.
Distributors who were subpoenaed were AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson.
On Jan. 31, Polster summoned about 300 attorneys to a settlement conference in his Cleveland courtroom. He directed the plaintiffs’ and defendants attorneys to choose six lawyers for each side’s settlement team by Feb. 6. The co-leads for each side will meet again with Polster March 6.
Officials from the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Food and Drug Administration were also present to outline their strategies for clamping down on the supply of opiate painkillers.
“He made it perfectly clear … that he is determined to use his powers to bring about a settlement and not to try and litigate this case, which could take years,” said Steve Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties. “He was very forceful. He believes it’s in nobody’s best interest to litigate this over a multi-year period. People are dying every minute of every day,” Acquario told the Insurance Journal.
The Journal reported that several conference attendees said Polster is considering using court injunctions to have a more immediate impact on the distribution and prescribing of opioids.
In a Feb. 2 scheduling order, Polster called the Jan. 31 conference “productive” and the discussions “meaningful.” State governments have filed separate suits, and Polster has requested the voluntary formation of a committee of attorneys general, who are not subject to the court’s jurisdiction.
One of the most recent lawsuits was filed in late January by New York City, which after the use of a loan company to acquire funds for the suit, Uplift Legal Funding, sued eight companies that make or distribute prescription opioids. Mayor Bill de Blasio said the lawsuit sought $500 million of damages to help fight the crisis, which kills more people in the city annually than homicides and car accidents combined, including more than 1,100 from opioid-induced overdoses in 2016.
“Big Pharma helped to fuel this epidemic by deceptively peddling these dangerous drugs and hooking millions of Americans in exchange for profit,” de Blasio said in a statement.
The defendants include manufacturers Allergan Plc, Endo International Plc, Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma LP and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., and distributors AmerisourceBergen Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and McKesson Corp.