Tennessee, Florida Opioid Suits Create New Settlement Doubts

(Bloomberg) -- Lawsuits filed against Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma LP and other drugmakers by Tennessee and Florida cast more doubt about the viability of settlement talks aimed at addressing the U.S. opioid epidemic.

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery and Florida’s Pam Bondi on Tuesday accused executives of Purdue and other opioid makers and distributors of fueling a public-health crisis by falsely claiming that the synthetic pain medicine wasn’t addictive. They joined more than 20 other states that have sued companies including Purdue, Johnson & Johnson and McKesson Corp. over the products.

It’s a twist for Slatery and Bondi, who have been leading settlement negotiations sponsored by a coalition of attorneys general and who’ve deferred from suing makers and distributors of the drug until now. Four other states -- North Carolina, Texas, Nevada and North Dakota -- also filed opioid suits Tuesday. They were also part of the talks.

“We are disappointed that after months of good faith negotiations working toward a meaningful resolution to help these states address the opioid crisis, this group of attorneys general have unilaterally decided to pursue a costly and protracted litigation process,” Robert Josephson, a Purdue spokesman, said in an emailed statement.

Separately, hundreds of cities and counties are suing the drugmakers and distributors in cases that have been consolidated before a federal judge in Cleveland. The first trial there is scheduled for March, although settlement talks continue.

Quick Settlement?

Lawyers for Stamford, Connecticut-based Purdue approached some state attorneys general last year hoping to come up with a quick and affordable settlement of lawsuits seeking to recoup the costs of dealing with the fallout from opioid addictions.

But six people familiar with the talks said this month they were stalled over the question of who will pay to provide extra funding for law-enforcement and drug treatment budgets, Bloomberg News reported May 3. The companies want to test their defenses to the state’s claims before discussing a multibillion-dollar settlement, the people said.

Slatery’s and Bondi’s decision to sue is an acknowledgment opioid makers and distributors won’t get serious about settling suits until the cases go to trial, said Mike Papantonio, a Florida-based lawyer involved in the litigation.

“You can’t accomplish anything in terms of getting companies to admit they are responsible without filing lawsuits,” Papantonio said. “There won’t be any closure on this without litigation.”

Leigh Ann Jones, Slatery’s spokeswoman, said Tennessee’s top lawyer “will continue to play a leadership role in the multistate effort and settlement discussions.”

Bondi said she wanted an out-of-court deal even though she’d joined the ranks of states suing opioid makers. “We will never stop negotiating,” she said at a press conference Tuesday. The suit is a warning that Florida officials are “fully prepared to go to war” if the companies balk at a settlement, she added.

George Jepsen, Connecticut’s attorney general and another leader of the multistate talks, said Slatery and Bondi should press ahead with settlement talks. “We anticipate they will continue in their leadership rolls going forward,” he said.

Other attorneys general have dropped out of the talks because they wanted to move aggressively to recover the billions of dollars spent on the opioid crisis. More than 100 Americans die daily from opioid overdoses.

The consolidated case by the cities and counties is In Re: National Prescription Opiate Litigation, 17-md-2804, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Ohio (Cleveland).

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