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Opioid Companies Try To Reach Settlements Before Trial


Drug companies are trying desperately to reach a settlement on thousands of opioid lawsuits. That's because they'll be in federal court on Monday in Cleveland if they don't. NPR has learned that the judge handling the case has already rejected one proposed deal that was valued at about $18 billion. And the New York Times reported late yesterday that a new settlement proposal is now on the table. It is worth as much as $50 billion. Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio covers opioid litigation for NPR. Good morning, Brian.


KING: So a lot up in the air here. Where do things stand right now?

MANN: Yeah. We know the talks are intense. There is this deadline looming because of Monday's start of the trial. Judge Dan Polster, who's running the show, is keeping a very tight lid on these negotiations. So none of the companies involved are confirming those dollar figures. What they have said is that they want a deal. Big drug distributors like McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health and also drug makers like Teva and Johnson & Johnson - they want some kind of global settlement that'll end this seemingly endless wave of opioid lawsuits. More than 2,300 suits have been filed.

KING: OK. So they want a deal just to get out of this, to get through this. So far, no deal.

MANN: Yeah, not yet. We heard from attorneys representing a lot of these local governments that are suing late last night. They said no deal has happened yet. One wrinkle, Noel, is that the drug industry seems to want a lot of control over how settlement money would be spent, what programs the dollars would fund. And they also want a lot of the payout to come in the form of medication - addiction relief drugs and product that they would give, not actual cash. And a lot of these companies - communities, I should say - say they need money. They've spent billions of dollars on law enforcement and rehab programs and foster care. So they want money. Another big issue in these talks is whether or not firms will admit to any wrongdoing. The deal that we heard about last month with Purdue Pharma - they refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing in the opioid epidemic. And that failure to admit responsibility has driven some states to reject the deal.

KING: All right. So while these talks are underway with tens of billions of dollars on the line, what is happening with this trial?

MANN: So far, it's still moving forward. All the machinery of jury selection is going on. That took place yesterday and will happen again today. So the pressure gets more intense day by day to reach some kind of deal before those opening arguments happen at 9 a.m. Monday. Understand this is supposed to be a big test case, Noel. I mean the trial, if it goes forward, would establish the full scope of the drug industry as liability for this epidemic. And interestingly, the judge overseeing the trial, Judge Polster, has said openly he prefers a settlement. He'd like for this to get resolved.

KING: Why? Why not go to trial?

MANN: Well, I think the big thing is for everyone involved, a trial equals uncertainty and a lot of risk. Companies that made and distributed opioids have been losing in court. Johnson & Johnson lost a big civil trial this summer in Oklahoma valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. And back in May, a jury found executives with Insys Therapeutics guilty on criminal charges. So the liability could be massive if this jury in Cleveland finds against the industry and forces it to pay to clean up this opioid epidemic. There's also just a lot of bad PR that could come from this. So that's something these companies want to avoid.

KING: All right. Brian Mann, thanks so much.

MANN: Thank you, Noel.

KING: Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio covers opioid litigation for NPR. And he will be in Ohio next week, covering that trial if it goes forward. We'll be bringing you news from there.


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Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.