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Settlement negotiations near multi-billion dollar conclusion in drug lawsuits
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Settlement negotiations near multi-billion dollar conclusion in drug lawsuits

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Opioids

Prescription narcotics, from left, morphine sulfate, OxyContin and Opana. Several Wyoming cities have filed lawsuits against the manufacturers of prescription painkillers.

Negotiations by a handful of prescription drug distributors to settle hundreds of lawsuits related to the opioid crisis are nearing a conclusion, with “tens of billions” of dollars being discussed, a Wyoming attorney said.

Several Wyoming cities and entities — including Casper, Cheyenne and the two Wind River Reservation tribes — have all filed federal lawsuits against more than a dozen companies tied to the opioid crisis. In all, more than 2,000 counties, cities, states, tribes and towns have sued a group of companies all tied to the crisis.

Last month, the most prominent defendant in those cases, OxyContin giant Purdue Pharma, announced it had reached a $3 billion settlement that included the company filing for bankruptcy.

That settlement marked the first in what will likely be a wave of such agreements. On Friday, Jackson attorney Jason Ochs — who represents most of the Wyoming entities in those federal lawsuits — told the Star-Tribune that the hundreds of cities, counties and states suing the drug companies are nearing a settlement with three defendants. The defendants are all drug distributors. They are McKesson, Johnson & Johnson and Teva.

The distributors were named in the lawsuits because they “share(d) the responsibility for controlling the availability of prescription opioids.” The suits broadly accused the two dozen defendants of misrepresenting the risks of opioids and of marketing them aggressively despite research suggesting they were highly addictive.

The companies had previously denied any wrongdoing.

Ochs said there may be a deal struck between the two sides by Monday, when an Ohio judge is set to oversee the beginning of the first opioid lawsuits.

“(T)ens of billions are being discussed,” Ochs said in an email, “and I do think there is a change (though less than 50/50) it could resolve before opening statements on Monday.”

Asked if the settlement could be a multi-year deal, as Purdue’s was, Ochs said it was a possibility but that the situation was too fluid to say for sure.

The Guardian reported Friday that jury selection for the trials was completed earlier this week. The judge overseeing the sprawling federal litigation, which includes the Wyoming cases, summoned executives for the drug companies and was moving between rooms of attorneys as he worked to hammer out a deal, according to the Guardian.

The settlement may be as high as $50 billion, according to the outlet. If the three companies settle, there will still more than a dozen plaintiffs attached to the suits, including drug manufacturers and big pharmacies like Walgreens and Walmart.

Meanwhile, the Wyoming attorney general is still suing Purdue in state court. But the future of that litigation is unclear. As part of its settlement, Purdue is seeking bankruptcy protection. Last month, it filed a notice of bankruptcy with the Laramie County court overseeing the lawsuit. That filing seeks an automatic stay on the litigation.

Richard Mincer, Purdue’s Wyoming attorney, did not return messages left earlier this week. A spokeswoman for the company declined to comment. Wyoming Attorney General Bridget Hill did not return a message seeking comment sent Friday. She previously declined to comment about whether the state would seek its own settlement from Purdue.

Hill is one of several state attorneys general still trying to hold Purdue accountable, only to be stymied by the company’s bankruptcy. Last week, a bankruptcy judge in New York paused dozens of lawsuits against the company and its owners, the Sackler family. The Washington Post reported last week that the judge is halting the litigation for only three weeks, during which time the attorneys general will seek more financial information about the Sacklers, who are named as defendants in many suits.

Wyoming’s lawsuit, however, lists only Purdue as a defendant; it doesn’t include the Sacklers or any of the other companies that are defendants in the federal cases.

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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