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Ohio Civil Suits May Encourage Drug Firms To Help Solve Opioid Epidemic

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Ohio, a federal judge is allowing a massive civil case to move forward against some of the nation's biggest drug-makers and distributors. The ruling was handed down yesterday. Hundreds of local governments are suing, hoping to recover damages caused by the deadly opioid epidemic. NPR's Brian Mann has more.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Cities and towns across the U.S. argue that companies like Purdue Pharma, Walmart and Rite Aid that made and sold opioids like OxyContin should pay to help remedy the drug epidemic now raging.

GRETA JOHNSON: It just never seems to end. It feels like every day, there is a new story of loss of life, loss of hope.

MANN: Greta Johnson works for Summit County, Ohio. She says government resources, police courts, foster care have been swamped.

JOHNSON: The number of children we have in our Children Services bureau has just exponentially increased, and it is as a result of opioids.

MANN: So Summit County became one of hundreds of localities that filed civil suits consolidated in the federal court of Judge Dan Polster in the Northern District Court in Ohio. The companies urged him to dismiss the suits. They argued that the statute of limitations had run out and made the case that cities and counties weren't eligible to seek compensation for these kinds of damages.

But on Wednesday, Judge Polster rejected those arguments. In a strongly worded ruling, he described the opioid epidemic as a man-made plague and said communities will have the opportunity to try to prove the drug industry contributed to the addiction of millions of Americans.

Alexandra Lahav is a law professor at the University of Connecticut. She says this is an early ruling. No liability has been proved, but she thinks the judge's language should worry drug companies.

ALEXANDRA LAHAV: A lot of litigation is about taking control of the narrative and having a story about yourself as a good guy. That seems like an uphill battle for this set of defendants.

MANN: This case matters in part because it's seen as a bellwether for other opioid lawsuits around the country. Adam Zimmerman, a law professor at Loyola University, says if the industry is forced to pay to help clean up the opioid mess, the price tag could run into the tens of billions of dollars.

ADAM ZIMMERMAN: It's big in terms of the total liability and number of cases being asserted by municipalities, which is now up in the thousands. I've never seen a case as big as this one.

MANN: This case is now expected to go to trial next fall, though with more than a hundred Americans dying each day from overdoses, Judge Polster has urged local governments and the drug industry to reach a financial settlement that would pay for new programs to fight the opioid epidemic without bankrupting drug-makers and pharmacies. Brian Mann, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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