Opioid-Industry Claims Proceed as Judge Cites ‘Man-Made Plague’

(Bloomberg) -- Calling the U.S. opioid epidemic a “man-made plague,’’ the judge overseeing local governments’ lawsuits targeting makers and distributors of the painkillers cleared test cases to move forward.

U.S. District Judge Dan Polster concluded Wednesday it “would not be appropriate’’ to throw out racketeering, conspiracy and public nuisance claims against drugmakers including Purdue Pharma LP and Johnson & Johnson, and distributors McKesson Corp. and Cardinal Health Inc. “at this early stage’’ of the litigation.

The ruling comes as lawyers for more than 1,400 U.S. cities and counties suing companies to recoup billions of dollars for the cost of battling the public health crisis tied to opioids prepare for three Ohio test cases set for trial next year.

“In 2019, we expect opioid manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies will finally be held accountable for the public crisis they wrought when they fraudulently marketed and over-distributed addictive and dangerous opioids,’’ Joe Rice, Paul Hanly and Paul Farrell, three attorneys leading the local government suits, said in an emailed statement.

Andrew Wheatley, a spokesman for J&J’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals unit, said the company will continue to defend itself in the consolidated litigation over opioids.

“Our actions in the marketing and promotion of these medicines were appropriate and responsible,’’ Wheatley said in a emailed statement. “The labels for our prescription opioid pain medicines provide information about their risks and benefits, and the allegations made against our company are baseless and unsubstantiated.’’

Robert Josephson, a spokesman for Stamford, Connecticut-based Purdue, and Kristin Hunter Chasen, a spokeswoman for San Francisco-based McKesson, didn’t immediately respond to a phone call and email about the decision. Ellen Barry, a spokeswoman for Dublin, Ohio-based Cardinal Health, said the company was disappointed.

“Cardinal Health will continue to vigorously defend itself and expects ultimately to prevail,’’ Barry said in an emailed statement.

Hard-hit states including Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky have accused drugmakers and distributors of understating the risks of prescription opioids, overstating their benefits, and failing to halt suspiciously large shipments to pharmacies.

With the cases consolidated for pretrial proceedings before Polster in Cleveland, both sides have engaged in a year’s worth of settlement talks. But drugmakers and distributors have pushed back on the local governments’ demands, hoping to narrow or defeat the suits in the early stages in order to cut down potential settlement costs.

Polster largely upheld the recommendations of U.S. Magistrate Judge David Ruiz, who recommended in October that the judge rebuff defendants’ bids to have the local governments’ cases thrown out.

The judge said it was accurate to describe the wave of opioid addictions sweeping the U.S. “as a man-made plague, twenty years in the making. The pain, death and heartache it has wrought cannot be overstated.”

Local government officials “have made very serious accusations” that defendants bear “part of the responsibility for this plague because of their action and inaction in manufacturing and distributing prescription opioids,” Polster added.

While it remains to be seen whether cities and counties can prove the companies “contributed to the addiction of millions of Americans,” they will have the chance to do so in these cases, he added.

The case is In Re National Prescription Opioid Litigation, 17-md-2804, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Ohio (Cleveland).

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.