Judge Says Trial Over Opioids May Be Necessary

A federal judge pushing for a settlement in lawsuits by state and local governments against drug companies over their roles in the U.S. opioid epidemic said on Wednesday that trials may be needed after both sides identified barriers to reaching a deal.

U.S. District Judge Dan Polster in Cleveland in an order said the parties at a hearing on Tuesday to discuss the status of settlement talks indicated that a “limited litigation track” was needed.

Polster said that would include motions and so-called bellwether trials, essentially test cases used in mass litigation in the United States to help both sides gauge the range of damages and define settlement options.

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“The parties reported important and substantial progress on several fronts, but also identified various barriers to a global resolution,” Polster wrote in an order.

The development signals that a quick settlement may not be feasible in the litigation despite the pro-active push by Polster, who is overseeing more than 355 lawsuits blaming corporations for helping fuel the opioid epidemic.

The judge at a hearing in January said he wanted “do something meaningful to abate this crisis and to do it in 2018.”

Johnson & Johnson, one of the corporate defendants, in a statement said it is “committed to being part of the ongoing dialog and to doing our part to find ways to address this crisis.”

Representatives for the other companies and plaintiffs either did not immediately respond to requests for comment or declined comment on Wednesday.

In 2016, the last year with publicly available data, 42,000 people died from opioid overdoses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The lawsuits have generally accused the drugmakers of deceptively marketing opioids and allege distributors ignored red flags indicating the painkillers were being diverted for improper uses.

The defendants include opioid manufacturers Purdue Pharma LP, Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd , Endo International Plc and Allergan Plc and drug distributors AmerisourceBergen Corp, Cardinal Health Inc and McKesson Corp.

Polster has pushed for a global settlement. To facilitate that, he has invited state attorneys general who have cases in state courts not before him or who are conducting a multistate investigation to participate in those talks.

While Polster in Wednesday’s order said some litigation will now take place, he directed three special masters appointed to facilitate settlement talks to continue participating in negotiations and scheduled another settlement hearing for May.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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