After months of waiting, one drugmaker and five distributors accused of fueling the nation’s opioid addiction epidemic may finally face a courtroom this week. But with multibillion-dollar settlement talks swirling, will a bellwether trial for thousands of those lawsuits end before it begins?
Today, Teva and five distributors will begin their defense in a trial that could set the tone for either a global settlement or a landmark trial in multidistrict litigation in Cleveland.
With a prospect of a courtroom looming, Teva and at least three of the distributors named as defendants are in talks to settle the suit with the two counties whose claims are up first—Summit and Cuyahoga—as well as the thousands of other state and local suits they face in Cleveland.
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On a busy day for opioid news, here’s the latest.
Months after settling opioid claims with the state of Oklahoma for $85 million, Teva is now reportedly offering to give away $15 billion in generic drugs to strike a deal in the Cleveland litigation. The deal would shell out the drug over the span of 10 years and would include the drugmaker’s addiction treatment nasal spray Narcan, according to Bloomberg. On the heels of Bloomberg’s report, Teva’s share price was up 4% in pre-market trading Wednesday. A Teva spokeswoman declined to comment.
With Teva coming to the negotiating table, three of the distributors named in the bellwether trial—McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health—are reportedly in discussions to reach a combined $18 billion settlement of their own. Under the deal, the companies would pay it out in $1 billion increments over 18 years, according to the Wall Street Journal. All three distributors were at the center of a recent push to recuse the U.S. district judge overseeing the Cleveland litigation, Dan Polster, after accusing him of favoring a settlement in the case. The other defendants in the bellwether trial include Walgreens, a retailer named as a distributor, and Henry Schein Medical, which sells medical equipment to doctors and dentists. A spokesman for AmerisourceBergen declined to comment. Spokespersons for McKesson and Cardinal could not be reached for comment by press time.
With the bellwether defendants angling to reach a deal, Johnson & Johnson is also testing the waters on a global settlement of its own—this time to the tune of $4 billion. J&J was recently the unwilling recipient of a $572 million penalty in an Oklahoma opioid bench trial in August that marked the first time a drugmaker has been found directly responsible for a state’s addiction crisis.
J&J vowed to appeal that Oklahoma decision and might have picked up some extra ammunition after the trial’s judge admitted he fumbled a number in the verdict. On Wednesday, Judge Thad Balkman acknowledged that he mistakenly set aside $107,683,000 in J&J’s penalty to help combat neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS. The actual figure was supposed to be $107,683. “That’s the last time I use that calculator,” Balkman said, according to CTV News. A J&J spokesman said the company was awaiting the court’s final order.
As settlement talks pick up steam across the board, several Democratic presidential hopefuls said opioid maker CEOs should face prison time during a CNN debate Tuesday. California Sen. Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, called companies like Purdue and Teva “nothing more than some high-level dope dealers” and favored incarceration for execs. As Vox pointed out, that position is nothing new for a Democratic field hoping to look the toughest on opioid makers: Both Sens. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, have called for the jailing of pharma executives who have helped spur the nation’s opioid crisis.