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Landmark Federal Opioid Trial Is Set To Begin In Cleveland


There has been a major development in a case to determine who bears the responsibility for America's opioid crisis. This morning, four drug companies reached a tentative deal in a landmark case in Ohio, where the crisis has claimed thousands of lives. The development came less than two hours before the trial was set to begin. Here with the latest is North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann. He covers opioid litigation for NPR, and he joins us from Cleveland.

So, Brian, you and I were talking about this case, and the suit was moving forward. There was going to be a trial. It was going to start today. Now there's a tentative deal. What can you tell us?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, first of all, they were very sneaky, and they did these talks through the weekend and through this morning behind closed doors, so this was a surprise to everybody. But yes, there is a tentative deal now. And it's with four companies involved, three of the major drug distributors in the country, including McKesson and Cardinal Health, also the drugmaker Teva. And what they've agreed to do is pay out about $300 million in total - that's cash - but also some medical supplies that they're going to donate. What's interesting here is that this only involves two Ohio counties, right? This is not a global, national deal. This is only for Summit and Cuyahoga counties. And so this leaves some big questions about what this will mean for the rest of the country.

MARTIN: Right. So - and I want to ask about that in a minute. But first, if four companies are part of this settlement, does that mean the remaining two are still going to trial?

MANN: What's going to happen now - so Walgreens and one other firm essentially severed from this deal and also severed from this trial. So this trial is not now going to go forward. What will happen is that they will be bundled together with all of the thousands of other lawsuits that are still unresolved that will go forward. And, essentially, there will still need to be some future test case to determine their liability and also the larger liability for the entire pharmaceutical industry.

MARTIN: I mean, all - it's my understanding that all of the companies have been pushing for some kind of settlement because presumably, going to trial just makes them look worse in some way.

MANN: Yeah, so it's terrible PR. What's come out through this litigation over the last year has been devastating for the pharmaceutical industry - internal documents, emails that have shown a lot of alleged wrongdoing. So that's bad. The other thing that's happening here, Rachel, is that these companies are scrambling to find a global solution, right? We're talking hundreds of millions of dollars here for just two relatively small Ohio counties. You multiply that by all the counties in the country hit by this opioid epidemic and it's sort of death by a thousand cuts. So by settling this now, what these companies do is buy themselves some time to go back to the bargaining table with state attorneys general and others and try to hash out something on the scale of the tobacco deal of the 1990s that really puts this all behind the industry. They didn't get that done here. It's still just a local deal, but it does buy them more time to go back to the bargaining table.

MARTIN: Wow. At this point, Brian, do you have any sense of where all of that money that's been agreed to in these settlements - where it's going to go? I mean, you mentioned it's just these two counties.

MANN: Yeah. So Summit and Cuyahoga counties have begun talking about how they're going to spend this money - and, you know, rehab clinics and law enforcement and foster care programs; all the different social service programs that have been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. And what's also going to be happening now is thousands of other communities around the U.S. are going to be sort of reading the tea leaves. If these two counties were able to get this much relief by suing, should we sue too? Should we sign on to these big, consolidated federal cases that are moving forward? So, really, in terms of the policymaking, how the opioid epidemic is going to be treated, this is just another sort of data point that everybody now is going to be kind of figuring out.

MARTIN: All right. Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio - he covers opioid litigation.

Brian, thanks. We appreciate it.

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