2 Ohio Counties Reach Settlement In Lawsuit Over Opioid Epidemic

Oct 21, 2019
Originally published on October 21, 2019 7:28 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's been a lot of breaking news today on the opioid front - first, a major court settlement in Ohio and now talk of a tentative national deal valued at $48 billion. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann is in Cleveland, where these developments have been taking place. And he's on the line with us now.

Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, there.

SHAPIRO: First, there was this sudden settlement early this morning which resolves a lawsuit filed by two counties in Ohio that have been hit hard by the epidemic. Tell us what kind of help they're going to receive.

MANN: Yeah. At the very last minute, just before the trial was scheduled to start, the companies agreed to pay Summit and Cuyahoga counties roughly $260 million in cash and medications. Ilene Shapiro is Summit County's executive. And speaking outside the courthouse today, she said, you know, these resources will save lives and also send a message to the drug industry.

ILENE SHAPIRO: We got people dying. We got people that are addicted. We need to stop this, and so that was the primary purpose of this. The way that it works with companies is that getting them to change behavior is through the pocketbook.

MANN: So there was a lot of hugging and back-slapping there in Cleveland after this deal was announced.

SHAPIRO: There was no admission of wrongdoing in the settlement. And the deal means that a lot of documents and evidence about the epidemic will not be released to the public. How are people responding to that?

MANN: Yeah. On this point, there's a lot of frustration and anger. I spoke outside the courthouse also with Greg McNeil. He's an opioid activist who lost his son Sam to an overdose in 2015.

GREG MCNEIL: It's kind of a hollow victory because you have no admission of wrongdoing, you know? And I feel like if we had some admission here, then you'd get a little bit of closure for a lot of families out there.

MANN: But I will say that McNeil does agree that the money will help, you know, with medical care and social programs for people who are addicted.

SHAPIRO: This was supposed to be a kind of test case. This was a major trial that was going to hash out some of the big questions about who pays for the opioid crisis. So what happens now that the trial is canceled?

MANN: Yeah. This was a bit of an anticlimax in that sense, and there is uncertainty now. Even some of the attorneys who negotiated this settlement voiced regret that this didn't turn into the test trial they'd been building toward for months. I spoke with Mark Lanier, who's one of the attorneys for the two counties.

MARK LANIER: We don't have a chance to test the legal theories that are being used here to see if they are properly used, to see where their limits are and the bounds are.

MANN: So what that means is that there are unanswered questions for all the other communities out there who are still suing the drug industry.

SHAPIRO: And as we mentioned, there is another big news story on the opioid front today. The framework for a national settlement was just recently announced. Tell us what that looks like and whether it's likely to be enacted.

MANN: Yeah, this is kind of a moving target this afternoon. A bipartisan group of attorneys general and five major drug companies say they've reached a $48 billion deal that resolves a lot of these opioid liability questions. They say this is a plan that will end at least part of this big wave of litigation across the country. Here's Josh Shapiro, the attorney general in Pennsylvania.

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JOSH SHAPIRO: If we can't bring people together and there is no settlement, you will have random, haphazard litigation. And the needs of people across this country will not be met.

MANN: Johnson & Johnson, in particular, has agreed to pay out $4 billion in cash under this framework. But now these attorneys general are going to have to convince a lot more states and local governments to suspend their lawsuits and sign on. We'll see if they can pull that off.

SHAPIRO: That's North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann speaking with us on Skype.

Thank you.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.