The Massive Opioid Trial Set to Start Today Just Took a Big Turn

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Just hours before the landmark trial to litigate the opioid epidemic was set to start Monday, four of the six remaining drug-company defendants reached a last-minute $260 million settlement deal with two critically important Ohio counties slammed by the crisis.

It’s not clear where the trial goes now after the settlement, since there’s only one defendant — Walgreens — remaining in a test case that was meant to shape future opioid litigation across the U.S.

The tentative settlement deal with Cuyahoga and Summit counties was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, and the terms have not yet been released. Monday’s settlement does not resolve all of the thousands of lawsuits against Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen, but it could spur further settlement talks.

"While this morning's trial will not begin as scheduled, the federal opioid MDL continues to move forward, as thousands of American communities still have claims against opioid industry defendants,” the Plaintiffs' Executive Committee in the National Prescription Opiate Litigation said in a statement after the settlement deal was reported.

Opening arguments were scheduled to begin in Cleveland Monday with the six remaining defendants — Teva, McKesson, Cardinal, AmerisourceBergen, Walgreens and Henry Schein — facing the two Cleveland-area counties over a crisis that killed hundreds of thousands of people nationwide. All of the defendants, with the exception of Walgreens, have now agreed to compensate the counties rather than face a jury trial. Walgreens’ case is postponed, according to the Washington Post. (Henry Schein separately reached a $1.25 million agreement to end the counties’ lawsuits against them Monday.)

The Cuyahoga and Summit county cases were the first of more than 2,000 lawsuits to reach Cleveland’s courtroom, and were considered reliable bellwethers for how the rest of the lawsuits would play out. While the judge overseeing those cases has repeatedly called for a global settlement — the kind of deal that would end all of the lawsuits at once — talks to reach a larger deal fell apart Friday night. Combined, the opioid-related lawsuits make up one of the most complicated legal cases in U.S. history.

Meanwhile, OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma, perhaps the biggest name in the opioid trials, agreed to settle the lawsuits against it through bankruptcy proceedings last month. Other drugmakers have opted to settle with the two bellwether counties, instead.

The lawsuits argue the companies knowingly or recklessly pushed opioid drugs that resulted in hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths over the last two decades. The companies have widely denied any involvement in the overdose crisis.

Cover: Summit County executive Ilene Shapiro speaks to the media outside the U.S. Federal courthouse, Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, in Cleveland. The nation's three dominant drug distributors and a big drugmaker have reached a $260 million deal to settle a lawsuit related to the opioid crisis just as the first federal trial over the crisis was due to begin Monday. (AP Photo/David Dermer)

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