The plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors are proposing creating a "negotiating class" to settle claims with the companies.
Lawyers for the drug companies and the cities, counties and towns suing them descended on District Court Judge Dan Polster's Clevleand federal district courtroom Tuesday for a hearing.
Polster started by saying the opioid litigation in front of him has been “called by some the most complex litigation ever tried.”
There are more than 2,000 local governments involved in federal lawsuits against drugmakers, plus hundreds of plaintiffs in state courts and claims filed by state's attorneys general.
“Nobody has the capacity to try all these cases, which means some need to be settled or dismissed,” Polster said.
The "negotiating class" proposal is a way to get to a settlement. It would serve as a single entity to negotiate with the drug companies that covers all plaintiffs — including even those who have not yet sued — and to maintain local control over the use of the billions of dollars that could be coming.
“By having the counties and the cities showing up in the numbers that are here, it’s sending the message that No. 1, community problems require community solutions and No. 2, we’re not going to abide by settlement monies being hijacked for other purposes,” said Paul T. Farrell, Jr., co-lead counsel for communities suing drugmakers.
He added that drug companies like Purdue Pharma are seeking closure, and the negotiating class is a way to get it.
“They're saying, 'if we're gonna agree to a settlement here, we want that to be it'," Farrell said.
Individual municipalities can decide whether to participate. Then each participant would get to vote on any settlement.
Judge Polster expressed interest in what he called a "novel idea." But drug companies and state attorneys general expressed some objections. The plaintiffs' lawyers are revising their proposal and Judge Polster scheduled a hearing for Aug. 6..
Polster has pressed for a settlement since he was assigned the litigation.
In a rebuke from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals last week, two members of a three-judge panel said Polster had inappropriately kept DEA-compiled data on opioid distribution under seal. The judges found Polster used the likely release of the data during a trial as leverage to compel drug companies to settle.
The opioin described that as an improper reason to keep the information secret. The Department of Justice has the option to ask the full 16-judge court to consider the case.