A federal judge overseeing litigation related to the nation's opioid epidemic ruled Tuesday that lawsuits targeting Purdue Pharma and other drug companies can move to trial even as the OxyContin maker tries to reach a settlement.
The ruling was one of several issued by U.S. District Court Judge Dan Polster, who is preparing for a trial scheduled for Oct. 21 over claims from the Ohio counties of Cuyahoga and Summit.
It would be the first federal trial seeking to hold drug companies, distributors and pharmacies accountable for an overdose and addiction crisis that has killed more than 400,000 Americans since 2000. More than 2,000 local governments have sued the industry, with most of the cases gathered in multidistrict litigation under Polster. The first trial is partly intended to answer legal questions that could arise in others that would follow if a settlement can't be reached.
Polster issued six rulings Tuesday denying motions for summary judgment from various groups of defendants, who had hoped to have at least some claims against them tossed out. While it's not a surprise that Polster denied the requests, the decisions strengthen the plaintiffs' positions with the initial trial less than two months away.
He ruled that civil conspiracy claims against the companies that make, distribute and sell opioids can remain in the case. In his opinion, Polster wrote that it's for a jury to decide whether there is enough evidence to show the companies' actions meet the criteria of a conspiracy claim.
Some of the defendants also sought to have claims tossed out because of conflicts between the underlying state and federal laws; Polster denied those, as well.
Polster also made rulings specific to certain defendants or groups of them. He found that claims should not be dropped against Mallinckrodt, Teva and Actavis, three makers of generic drugs.
They argued that there was no proof they had marketed their generic opioids during certain time periods, but plaintiffs in the case responded that the companies had indeed done marketing. They pointed to their sponsorship of patient advocacy groups that called for more access to pain treatment.
The judge also ruled against a group of smaller drug distributors. They had argued that lawsuits against them should be tossed out because their involvement in the opioids industry was too small to make a difference.
In recent weeks, Polster has ruled against several efforts to keep expert witnesses from testifying on behalf of the local governments.
It's not clear just which defendants might be included when the trial begins. Last month, drugmakers Endo and Allergan settled claims with the two Ohio counties, and more settlements could come in the weeks ahead.
Purdue, a company strongly associated with the opioid epidemic through its OxyContin drug, has proposed settlement terms that would have the Stamford, Connecticut-based company file for a structured bankruptcy and pay $10 billion to $12 billion to settle all claims against it. The Sackler family, which owns Purdue, would pay $3 billion under the proposal and contribute an estimated $1.5 billion more from the sale of another company they own, Mundipharma.
Since details of the deal became public last week, some local officials and state attorneys general have pushed back, saying the amount of money offered is too small. Others have said they want people affected by the opioid epidemic to have a chance to address company executives in court.
Last month, a state judge in Oklahoma ruled that Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries must pay $572 million in the first state-court verdict on the opioid crisis. Purdue and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries settled with the state before the trial began.
Meanwhile, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost has sued to stop the trials involving the Ohio local governments' claims, saying the state's lawsuit should go first.