Allen County could join lawsuits against Big Pharma

By J Swygart -

LIMA — Allen County has everything to gain and nothing to lose by joining forces with surrounding counties in the filing of a lawsuit in federal court against “Big Pharma” as part of the ongoing effort to stem the national opioid epidemic.

That’s the message Allen County Prosecuting Attorney Juergen Waldick intends to convey to the Allen County Board of Commissioners in coming weeks. He said Tuesday that the possibility of such a lawsuit has already been discussed.

Nearly one-third of Ohio counties and several individual communities have filed suits against the manufacturers and distributors of opioid painkillers. Those lawsuits, along with similar suits filed in Alabama, California, Illinois, Kentucky, Washington and West Virginia, will be heard by a federal judge, presumably later this year.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that more than 250 such claims filed in federal courts across the country have been consolidated under Judge Dan Polster, who is based in Cleveland. Polster has called the epidemic “100 percent man-made” and asserted that other branches of government have “punted” on solving it. He is pushing for a resolution before the case goes to trial.

He has invited many parties to the table, including ones that technically do not have cases under his watch. Addiction experts are scheduled to address the lawyers on Wednesday.

The judge asked Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine to represent a group of at least nine states that have sued the industry in state courts. He also invited representatives of a group of about 40 state attorneys general that have not sued but have joined together to investigate the industry; at least one state attorney general from that group, Tennessee’s Herbert Slatery III, was planning to be there. That group already has had some settlement talks with companies.

Additionally, officials with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are being asked to head to Cleveland, as are representatives of insurance companies and the firms that are defendants in the lawsuits.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 42,000 people died of overdoses in 2016 from opioids, a class of drug that includes powerful prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin, illegal heroin and fentanyl, a strong synthetic drug sold both through prescriptions and on the street.

For the drug industry, it could be easier to enter into one massive settlement than deal with hundreds of claims before multiple judges. For governments, working together may represent the best chance of not only getting money to pay for treatment and other costs related to the epidemic but also to force reforms.

Perhaps the most comparable example of such a sweeping settlement over a public health epidemic came in 1998, when the four largest tobacco companies agreed to pay 46 states more than $200 billion over 25 years. The money was to fund public health programs and anti-smoking campaigns.

No cost to the county

While the overall tenor of the lawsuits to be held in federal court in Cleveland is the belief that drug manufacturers downplayed the risk of opioid use and therefore bear a certain financial responsibility in helping communities fund the after-effects of the opioid crisis, Waldick said each lawsuit addresses topics specific to their community and are not considered to be class-action filings.

He said talks are underway with officials in Van Wert and Auglaize Counties about the possibility of joining forces and filing a lawsuit in federal court.

“We hope to have a decision in the next three or four weeks,” said Waldick, who noted that the final decision lies with the county commissioners in each county.

The prosecutor said the lawsuit could be filed at no cost to the county, but did note that private legal counsel would need to be secured to user the suit through the legal process. Attorneys would be paid out of any settlement funds received by the counties.

Waldick said no “hard decisions have been made yet” surrounding the multi-county lawsuit, but he added that local authorities “need to get on the ball within the next month” if the suit is to proceed.

By J Swygart

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach J Swygart at 567-242-0464.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach J Swygart at 567-242-0464.

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