In 2019, The Legal Fight Over Opioids Unraveled Into Confusion And Infighting This was meant to be the year we answered a big question about the deadly opioid epidemic: Will drug companies that make and sell prescription pain medications be held liable? That clarity never came.

In 2019, The Legal Fight Over Opioids Unraveled Into Confusion And Infighting

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Communities hard hit by the opioid epidemic had hoped for help this year. They had taken the drug industry to court, then a big federal trial in Ohio was called off, and since then, the legal fight has unravelled. Here's North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: First, let's talk about the stakes. One hundred and thirty Americans die from opioid overdoses every day. And without some kind of national settlement with Big Pharma, communities won't get serious money to help with the crisis anytime soon. Josh Shapiro is Pennsylvania's state attorney general. He told reporters, without a deal similar to the Big Tobacco settlements of the 1990s, there will be legal chaos.

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JOSH SHAPIRO: We will randomly and haphazardly litigate these cases with no particular rhyme or reason, and the needs of people across the country will not be met.

MANN: For much of 2019, a deal seemed close. Federal Judge Dan Polster in Ohio was holding high-level settlement talks while channeling thousands of civil lawsuits against the drug industry into a tidy legal pipeline. Then came a big federal case in Polster's court in October that was expected to test the liability of drugmakers and distributors. At the very last minute, however, companies reached a local settlement with a couple of Ohio counties and the trial was called off. Greg McNeil, an activist whose son died from an opioid overdose in 2015, told NPR outside the courthouse in Cleveland he was flattened.

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GREG MCNEIL: You have no admission of wrongdoing. It seems as though nothing is changing.

MANN: Settlement talks also splintered with Judge Polster still leading negotiations in Ohio, while state attorneys general around the country pushed without success for a separate deal. Adam Zimmerman, a professor who studies opioid litigation at Loyola Law School, says he's just not sure what happens next.

ADAM ZIMMERMAN: I don't know if there's a clear road map.

MANN: Zimmerman thinks it made sense for Judge Polster and others to push for a big legal settlement this year, but he says it just didn't pay off.

ZIMMERMAN: The opioid crisis has just presented such an emergency and it's called for such quick action that, to the extent it hasn't worked, I don't think that's necessarily a fault of Judge Polster as much as just the extremely complicated nature of this litigation.

MANN: The legal muddle that remains is scary for cash-strapped towns and cities. It also leaves a big cloud over the pharmaceutical industry. In August, a state judge in Oklahoma found Johnson & Johnson liable for hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties for misleading marketing of prescription opioids. Johnson & Johnson is appealing that decision, but it was a shot across the bow for drug companies, a sign courts around the U.S. might rule in favor of communities. A month later, in September, the avalanche of lawsuits pushed another big opioid-maker over the edge.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Purdue Pharma, the company that made billions selling the prescription painkiller OxyContin, has filed for bankruptcy. The move comes just days...

MANN: As part of that structured bankruptcy, Purdue Pharma's owners, the Sackler family, offered to pay $3 billion of their personal cash to help communities, while giving up control of their privately held company to settle all opioid-related claims. But here again, there's a fight underway, with some states agreeing to the deal while others sue members of the Sackler family directly, accusing them of pulling more than $12 billion out of Purdue Pharma and hiding much of it in offshore accounts. Letitia James is state attorney general in New York.

LETITIA JAMES: I don't see how states can basically sign on to a settlement without knowing the valuation of how much resources the Sackler have in their possession, how much they're worth and or the worth of Purdue.

MANN: What this all adds up to is a lot more opioid trials next year, including another federal case scheduled for Judge Polster's court that will test the liability of big pharmacy chains - CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid - that sold opioids in huge quantities to their customers. Meanwhile, thousands of cities and small towns will keep scrambling to pay for the overdose medications, rehab and supportive housing programs that keep people alive.

Brian Mann, NPR News.

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