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Cleveland at center of upcoming federal opioid litigation with billions at stake

Communities across U.S. impacted by outcome
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Posted at 6:05 PM, Sep 11, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-11 23:25:41-04

CLEVELAND — The eyes of the nation will be trained on Cleveland in upcoming weeks as a federal opioid litigation case is rapidly picking up momentum ahead of an October trial date. Part of that momentum is a proposed settlement between Purdue Pharma and attorneys general from 23 states, including Ohio.

At stake, in what is collectively known as the "Federal Opioid Litigation" case, are billions of dollars that could be dolled out to state, counties and municipalities across the nation by pharmaceutical companies accused of knowingly fueling the nation's opioid crisis.

As an October 21 trial date looms ahead, both plaintiff's attorneys representing the interests of Cuyahoga and Summit counties, and attorneys defending pharmaceutical companies from allegations they deliberately hid the addictive dangers of opioid for profit, are scrambling to reach a possible settlement.

The Cuyahoga and Summit cases are called "bellwether" cases because the essential facts of each case and devastating impact to communities mirrors what has transpired in communities across the country.

As more and more lawsuits began to be filed across the nation, plaintiff's attorneys sought to centralize individual cases so "claims could be more efficiently handled."

Ohio was ultimately selected due to "a strong factual connection" to the litigation combined with a "significant rise in the number of opioid related overdoses" and "significant sums" spent in dealing with the opioid crisis.

Last February, U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster ordered the "claims of the County of Cuyahoga and the County of Summit will be prioritized" for the first "bellwether" trial.

Paul Farrell is a co-lead attorney representing plaintiffs and says Ohio "represents what happens when you dump tens of millions of opioids into a community."

Joe Rice, a co-lead attorney working alongside Farrell, says drug companies tried "to persuade people that 'we're the good guys--and by the way we've got this super duper pill that can be used for any pain purpose whatsoever and it's not addictive.'"

Our exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation into Ohio's opioid crisis obtained and analyzed a U.S. Drug Enforcement Database where we found a stunning 3.4 billion pills were shipped into the state between 2006 and 2012.

In addition, we found 358 million pills were shipped to Cuyahoga county with 212 million more in Summit.

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Purdue Pharma is among one of the largest pharmaceutical companies being held accountable and reached a tentative settlement for about $12 billion Wednesday, including a $3 billion payment from Purdue's owners, the Sackler family.

The law firms representing Cuyahoga and Summit counties in their litigation against opioid manufacturers provided this statement Wednesday through a public relations firm regarding Purdue's tentative settlement:

"Today, the federal opioid MDL Negotiating Committee and lead counsel agreed to recommend the MDL claimants -- the more than 2,000 American cities and counties we represent -- move forward to try to negotiate a final settlement agreement with Purdue Pharma on general parameters agreed to among the parties. We believe that this settlement would bring desperately needed recovery resources into local communities that, for years, have been forced to shoulder the devastating consequences and financial burden of the opioid epidemic. We look forward to sharing more details about the resolution’s structure and terms in the near term.

"While this agreement represents significant progress in the litigation, we continue to move forward toward October’s federal bellwether trial against other opioid manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacies."

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost released this statement Wednesday: "The proposed settlement with Purdue provides the greatest certainty for all Ohioans to receive relief as quickly as possible in light of rumored bankruptcy. AG Yost continues to fight to get resources for those impacted statewide and has been actively involved in the negotiations."

Three others, Endo Pharmaceutical, Allergan and Mallinkrodt, have also reached preliminary settlements totaling more than $45 million.

That leaves over a dozen other companies named in the litigation to reach their own settlement figures in upcoming weeks. Plaintiff's attorneys are prepared to make the case that the opioid crisis contributed to the deaths of 1,535 victims in Cuyahoga County along with 623 in Summit County between 2006 and 2016, based on a report by Harvard Professor Thomas McGuire that's among thousands of documents submitted as evidence.

The same report concludes the opioid crisis caused more than 40,000 additional crimes in Cuyahoga County, 20,000 in Summit and wreaked a staggering $20 billion in economic costs to communities across both counties.

In the most recent figures reported by the Ohio Department of Health in its 2017 Ohio Drug Overdose data, 4,422 deaths were attributed to unintentional drug overdose involving prescription opioids between 2011 and 2017.

In a January 2019 report, the Centers for Disease Control reported 47,600 opioid deaths nationwide in 2017 alone.