Opioid settlement talks stall, with trial expected on Monday

With negotiations not resolved before the scheduled start of court proceedings next week, the parties remain at odds.

    A bellwether trial to begin on Monday will give the parties a chance to assess the jury's reaction to the allegations [Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters]
    A bellwether trial to begin on Monday will give the parties a chance to assess the jury's reaction to the allegations [Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters]

    A landmark trial stemming from the United States opioid epidemic is expected to begin on Monday, after last-ditch talks to strike a multibillion-dollar settlement faltered on Friday, according to a lawyer for US local governments.

    The thousands of towns and counties that sued drugmakers and distributors are "not on the same page" as state attorneys general who also sued the companies, said the lawyer Paul Hanly.

    "Our clients aren't there yet," said Hanly, who represents the local governments that brought the bulk of the lawsuits from around the country. Those cases have been consolidated in the Cleveland federal court where talks were held on Friday.

    For Friday's talks, US District Court Judge Dan Polster summoned executives from the companies that distribute the bulk of US medicines - AmerisourceBergen Corp, Cardinal Health Inc and McKesson Corp - as well as Israel-based drugmaker Teva Pharmaceutical Industries.

    Hanly said the four state attorneys general leading the negotiations generally supported a proposed $18bn settlement with the three distributors.

    Also attending were executives from smaller distributor Henry Schein Inc and Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc, a pharmacy chain.

    Together, the companies will defend themselves at Monday's trial over allegations they fueled an opioid addiction crisis that caused roughly 400,000 US deaths from 1999 to 2017, according to government statistics.

    Hanly said discussions would continue, although he did not expect face-to-face talks to go through the weekend. Corporate executives and their attorneys and some of the attorneys for governments were still behind closed doors, where they had been negotiating all day.

    Another lawyer for local governments, Paul Farrell, said the attorneys general are attempting to decide among themselves how to allocate the settlement money - with little input from the local governments.

    While the cases pit governments against large companies that profited from the use of opioids, there is also tension between cities, towns and counties and their state governments over the right to bring the cases and control the settlement proceeds.

    Farrell said there was also an effort under way to reach a narrow settlement with just the two Ohio counties of Cuyahoga and Summit that are the plaintiffs in Monday's trial.

    If there is no settlement, Monday's so-called "bellwether" or test trial would proceed as scheduled.

    A bellwether trial gives the parties a chance to assess a jury's reaction to the allegations, which could then shape a settlement for all the litigation.

    Other defendants in lawsuits overseen by Polster include Johnson & Johnson, Mallinckrodt Plc, Endo International Plc, Walmart Inc and Allergan Plc, among others.

    OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma - viewed as one of the main culprits in heightening the opioid crisis - is also no longer part of the Ohio trial after declaring bankruptcy.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency