Pharmacy chains face October 2020 trial over their role in the opioid crisis

Drug manufacturers and distributors have agreed, or been ordered, to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in multiple settlements and one verdict reached in state and federal courts this year. But pharmacy chains have so far escaped without contributing.

Polster has been presiding over what is known at the National Prescription Opiate Litigation, a collection of lawsuits brought by cities, counties, Native American tribes and others against major players in the drug industry. Those lawsuits seek payments for companies’ alleged roles in the opioid crisis that has taken the lives of more than 400,000 people over the past two decades.

The lawsuits, filed around the United States, were consolidated in Polster’s northeast Ohio courthouse beginning in 2017 by a panel of federal judges and have grown to nearly 2,500 in number, Polster said in a written order Tuesday.

The case settled last month, in which Cuyahoga and Summit counties were also the plaintiffs, was a so-called “bellwether trial,” designed to help predict how other parties might fare if their cases eventually came before a jury. A $260 million settlement involving mammoth drug wholesalers McKesson Corp., AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health, as well as generic drug manufacturer Teva Pharmaceuticals, canceled that proceeding just hours before it was set to begin.

Polster has been urging a mass settlement for nearly two years, but with so many competing interests on both sides of the case, that goal has proven elusive.

“What the court has learned,” Polster wrote dejectedly in one of two orders he issued Tuesday, “is that if it proceeds with the bellwether trial process as it has so far, it will simply take too long to reach each category of plaintiff and defendant, much less each individual plaintiff and defendant. Meanwhile, the opioid crisis shows no sign of ending.”

So Polster proposed sending three trials to other federal courts in an effort to get the ball rolling again. A lawsuit filed by the city of Chicago against Purdue Pharma and other drug manufacturers would go back to federal court in Illinois. (Purdue has filed for bankruptcy and a federal judge has halted all litigation against the company and its owners, members of the Sackler family, until April.)

A case filed by the Cherokee Nation against a variety of drug companies — which includes “distinctive tribal issues”–would head to federal court in Oklahoma. And a case filed by the city and county of San Francisco that is nearly finished with pretrial discovery would be remanded to federal court in Northern California.

Polster offered to handle another seven cases that target various parts of the drug industry himself. The judges who sent him the federal cases, known as the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litgiation, must approve his plan.

Spokespeople for Walgreens, Teva and Johnson & Johnson declined to comment Tuesday evening.

The federal lawsuits aren’t the only legal action against drug companies. State attorneys general have filed 89 lawsuits against drug companies, and other entities have lodged an unknown number of other lawsuits in state courts as well. One case, involving the state of New York and two Long Island counties against a variety of drug companies, is scheduled for trial in March.

Outside court, about half the state attorneys general are proposing a deal that would provide $48 billion in cash and anti-addiction medication from several drug companies over 18 years, but about an equal number of states and lawyers for the cities and counties oppose the agreement.

On Friday, officials for 10 of the largest cities and counties in the United States sent a letter to the three major drug distributors saying they would not support the current out-of-court settlement.

Despite being “on the front lines of the opioid epidemic,” the officials wrote, “we were not consulted about this settlement, were not involved in negotiating its terms and were not apprised of its details.”

The letter was signed by leaders of New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia and other cities.

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