Attention turning to Florida after Ohio counties settle opioids lawsuit

With a $260 million settlement late last month between four pharmaceutical companies and two Ohio counties, odds for the first federal trial over the opioid crisis may be turning toward Florida.

The October 21 settlement calls for the distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson to pay a combined $215 million while manufacturer Teva would contribute $20 million in cash and $20 million worth of suboxone, which is used to treat opioid addiction, to the Ohio counties of Cuyahoga and Summit.

Those two counties were to be the plaintiffs in the first "bellwether" federal trial but their settlement doesn't resolve the more than 2,600 other lawsuits pending as part of the consolidated National Prescription Opiate Litigation.

Among those plaintiffs seeking to hold the drug industry accountable for a crisis that has been linked to more than than 400,000 deaths nationwide since 2000 is Pulaski County Government. The county's Fiscal Court voted to file suit in federal court two years ago. The case was transferred to the Northern Ohio District in December 2017 as part of the consolidation.

Neither Pulaski Judge-Executive Steve Kelley nor County Attorney Martin Hatfield could offer any news Monday about the local case's status.

While the pharmacy chain Walgreens remains as the sole defendant in the Ohio case and could go to trial within six months if they don't reach a settlement first, it appears from recent court documents that Florida plaintiffs are pushing for their own trial.

In letters filed on Monday (November 4), attorneys representing the West Boca Medical Center, Inc. and the Seminole Tribe of Florida are petitioning U.S. District Judge Dan Polster in the Northern Ohio District to consolidate the tribal lawsuit with the consortium representing more than 360 hospitals in 34 states.

"As the Court is aware, those motions relating to the West Boca case are fully briefed…and…therefore ripe for the Court's review and decision," wrote Mississippi-based attorney Don Barrett. "Alternatively, should your Honor prefer to try a hospital case closer to home, we represent St. Vincent Charity Medical Center in Cleveland. St. Vincent and its Rosary Hall have been leaders in fighting the opioid epidemic in northern Ohio…and would be honored to serve as a trial bellwether for the hospital plaintiffs."

However, the judge overseeing the federal litigation has been pushing for a global settlement not only providing damages for plaintiffs but also changing practices to combat the opioid crisis.

One deal potentially worth $48 billion in cash and drugs over time has yet to be completed because of disagreements between state and local governments over how to allocate the settlement. It would involve the three big distributors, Teva and Johnson & Johnson.

Meanwhile Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, reached a tentative settlement in September that could be worth up to $12 billion over time. Half the states and hundreds of local municipalities, however, oppose it. The company is now going through federal bankruptcy proceedings in New York, creating the possibility that its settlement offer could be renegotiated.

At the state level, Kentucky currently has nine lawsuits pending against several opioid distributors. Following the announcement of the settlement in Ohio, Attorney General Andy Beshear said his office is keeping up with the federal litigation.

"Because we filed our cases separately, it means we are going to have more leverage in looking at what their settlement may be, what the parameters may be, and determining if it's fair to us," Beshear said. "We have got to make sure we receive the funding that we're entitled to, that we get the justice that we need for our families, and that we have enough for treatment, prevention and recovery, to make sure the next generation doesn't face the same devastation that this one has."

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