As Opioid Lawsuits Increase, Judge Focuses On Solutions Instead Of Trials

By Kelly Burch 01/31/18

“I’m confident we can do something to dramatically reduce the number of opioids that are being disseminated, manufactured and distributed."

A judge with gavel in the foreground.

Last year, more than 250 municipalities around the country announced that they were suing opioid manufacturers in an attempt to recover funds spent on responding to the opioid crisis. However, the federal judge who will oversee many of the lawsuits said last month that he is more interested in making a difference than refereeing complex legal arguments.

“About 150 Americans are going to die today, just today, while we’re meeting,” U.S. District Judge Dan Polster of Cleveland, Ohio, told municipalities and manufacturers earlier this month, according to USA Today. “And in my humble opinion, everyone shares some of the responsibility, and no one has done enough to abate it.”

Trials and depositions were not the answer, he said. “People aren’t interested in figuring out the answer to interesting legal questions like pre-emption and learning intermediary, or unraveling complicated conspiracy theories.”

Instead, his focus will be on taking significant and swift action to help alleviate the opioid epidemic.

“My objective is to do something meaningful to abate this crisis and to do it in 2018,” Polster said. “I’m confident we can do something to dramatically reduce the number of opioids that are being disseminated, manufactured and distributed. Just dramatically reduce the quantity and make sure that the pills that are manufactured and distributed go to the right people and no one else.”

It is not clear what Polster’s statements may mean for future court proceedings. He will be overseeing about 200 lawsuits, so his influence on the outcome will undoubtedly be heavy.

Many of the lawsuits accuse opioid manufacturers of misleading marketing, and ignoring the significant risk of addiction that their medications carry. Cities and states have turned to lawsuits as a way to cover costs and change the way that powerful prescription drugs are marketed in the future.

With more municipalities announcing lawsuits every week, one legal scholar told USA Today that it’s unclear what effect the tide of lawsuits might have on manufacturers.

"The litigation costs must be killing them," said Richard Ausness, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law. While they might be tempted to settle to minimize costs, that could lead to more lawsuits in the long run, he noted. "The problem is that a settlement with some plaintiffs will only cause more plaintiffs to sue.”

Discussions in the cases that Polster is overseeing will begin again today. The proceedings are closed to the public and the media in hopes that both sides will be able to reach a settlement, the AP  reported.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.