Opioid settlement still a long way off
PARKERSBURG — The revelation of a potential settlement agreement with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma does not mean lawsuits by thousands of communities — including several in the Mid-Ohio Valley — are on the verge of ending.
Purdue is just one of the manufacturers and distributors facing lawsuits from states, counties, municipalities and Native American tribes, plus some unions and hospitals, and nothing about the tentative settlement is set in stone.
“We’re nowhere close yet,” said Marietta attorney Ethan Vessels, who is representing Washington, Noble and Meigs counties, as well as the City of Marietta. Talk of the settlement “should not be taken as a sign that the overall litigation, the combined case in Cleveland, is about to be settled.”
If an agreement is reached, it would likely remove Purdue from a federal trial scheduled to begin next month in Cleveland. In the first federal trial over the opioid epidemic, a jury will be asked to consider claims from two Ohio counties against a group of drugmakers, distributors and the pharmacy chain Walgreens, according to the Associated Press.
Vessels is working with the New York firm of Marc J. Bern and Partners, which is also one of the firms representing the Mid-Ohio Valley Opioid Litigation Alliance. Among the government entities in that group are Jackson, Pleasants, Ritchie, Roane, Wirt and Wood counties and the cities of Elizabeth, Harrisville, Ravenswood, Ripley, Spencer, St. Marys and Williamstown.
The City of Parkersburg is among the clients represented by Charleston attorney Rusty Webb in opioid litigation, while Vienna enlisted the Charleston law firm of Hill, Petersen, Carper, Bee and Deitzler.
The settlement could reportedly be worth up to $12 billion, over time. But the means by which it will be allocated has not been determined, Webb said.
“We still have a long way to go on the distribution model,” Webb said. “There will be a calculation of a formula on how to distribute the money based on population, impact and … number of opioids distributed in a particular county and city.”
It was not immediately clear Thursday whether that model would be impacted by an order and memorandum issued Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster, which certified a class to negotiate settlements with defendants in the litigation. That class includes all counties, parishes and boroughs and all incorporated places, including cities, towns, townships, villages and municipalities.
The sheer numbers will also impact just how much individual plaintiffs receive, Vessels noted.
“When you spread it over 2,000 plaintiffs … it’s actually not that much money,” he said.
Wood County Commission President Blair Couch said the opioid epidemic has impacted the area deeply and no amount of money will ever be enough to fully fix the damage done.
He said he hopes the impact of the lawsuit will discourage other companies from the practices that led to the opioid epidemic in this area.
Money from the settlement could go to fund some of the groups and organizations trying to tackle the effects of the drug epidemic, he said.
“The challenge is to be able to do things that will make a difference,” Couch said.
State attorneys general are also considering how to proceed.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey issued a statement Thursday afternoon saying that his office, with a coalition of more than two dozen attorneys general, signed on to the settlement framework late Tuesday. He emphasized that was done to protect West Virginia’s interests with bankruptcy a looming possibility for Purdue, but it does not bind the state to accept any final agreement.
“Having a prearranged framework enhances the potential financial recovery West Virginia may realize from its lawsuit, as opposed to the crumbs it could receive through a long, drawn-out, freefall bankruptcy proceeding that may linger for months or years,” Morrisey said.
“I can pull West Virginia from the framework at any time, but the price of not participating in the bankruptcy process now would have cost our office its place to influence a final settlement,” he said. “And rest assured, I will not sign on to any final deal unless it puts our state in the strongest possible position to fight this epidemic. … If Purdue goes into bankruptcy, which we expect that they will, we want to have the ability to continue talking and perhaps come up with the best possible deal for our state. If it’s not in the best interest of West Virginia when the final agreement is reached then I’ll say no and I’ll pull off.”
Morrisey was unsure of how much money West Virginia could stand to receive under such a settlement.
“This arrangement is a little different than others that have been in the state because this would be money for the state, (and) the counties … and there’s been no agreement yet as to how well that would be divided up. There are a lot of tough discussions ahead and also there’s no formula within the states yet in terms of how each state will be.
“There are a lot of ideas that are out there but we want to make sure that we protect West Virginia’s interests. (It’s) still premature to go through all those details,” Morrisey said.
Ohio Attorney General David Yost has been actively involved in negotiations, said Dave O’Neil, senior public information officer for Yost’s office.
“The proposed settlement with Purdue provides the greatest certainty for all Ohioans to receive relief as quickly as possible in light of rumored bankruptcy,” he said.
Other attorneys general have expressed reservations about the settlement talks, with some indicating they will wait to raise objections in bankruptcy court, the AP reports. Critics have said the deal won’t be worth that $12 billion figure, won’t force internal company documents into the public arena and doesn’t do enough to hold the company and its owners responsible.