Opioid Trial Judge, Overseeing 2,000 Lawsuits, Denies Bias, Refuses to Step Down

By | September 26, 2019

The Cleveland judge overseeing more than 2,000 federal lawsuits over alleged opioid abuses refused to disqualify himself from a bellwether trial set to start next month, rejecting a request by drug distributors and pharmacies who say he is biased against the companies.

“Acknowledging the immense scope of the opioid crisis, and calling on all entities who have the power to ameliorate it to join me in doing so without delay, does not reflect any bias or prejudice toward any party to the litigation, and no reasonable observer would so conclude,” U.S. District Judge Dan Polster said Thursday in his ruling.

The first federal trial of the opioid litigation is set to begin Oct. 21 in Cleveland, and the outcome could serve as a benchmark for claims that about two dozen companies are liable for a national epidemic of addiction and overdoses. States and local governments are seeking billions of dollars in damages to help fund treatment programs and police.

Earlier this month, lawyers for drug distributors and pharmacies, including AmerisourceBergen Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and CVS Health Corp., sought to remove Polster from all the opioid cases, claiming public comments by the Cleveland judge reveal likely bias. Drugmakers didn’t participate in request.

“Defendants do not bring this motion lightly,” the companies said in a Sept. 14 motion, just days after Polster approved the creation of a plaintiffs’ negotiating group to work out a deal between the defendants and government attorneys.

If the companies lose at trial, the judge would play a central role in determining how much the defendants must pay.

Polster has pursued dual tracks for the companies to resolve the disputes. “Each defendant has a choice to litigate or settle,” he said. “If it wants to settle, it will have to pay money to plaintiffs.”

Polster said he has assisted opioid manufacturers Endo International Plc, Allergan Plc and Mallinckrodt Plc in reaching multi-million dollar settlements.

In denying the motion to oust him, Polster said the magnitude of the opioid crisis cannot be overstated.

“Publicly acknowledging this human toll does not suggest I am biased,” he said. “It shows that I am human.”

Plaintiff lawyers overseeing claims by local governments applauded the ruling.

“We are gratified the court has powerfully rejected this last-ditch effort to derail the upcoming trial,” Joe Rice, Paul Hanly and Paul Farrell said in an emailed statement.

The case is In Re National Prescription Opioid Litigation, 17-md-2804, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Ohio (Cleveland).

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