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CLEVELAND, Ohio — A federal judge in Cleveland on Wednesday set a trial date for next year for three lawsuits filed by Ohio governments against drug companies over the nation’s opioid epidemic.

U.S. District Judge Dan Polster wrote that he plans to hold a combined three-week trial for city of Cleveland and Cuyahoga and Summit counties beginning March 18.

Polster is presiding over hundreds of suits against drug manufacturers and distributors filed by governments from every corner of the country, including La Crosse County.

Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and Summit County are at the epicenter of what has become an increasingly deadly drug epidemic that has ravaged the country and caused thousands of overdose deaths annually.

The suits argue drug manufacturers overstated the benefits and downplayed the risks of addiction when treating pain with opioids, and that distributors failed to properly monitor suspicious orders of painkillers.

The volume of prescription opioids prescribed in the United States has quadrupled since 1999, with Americans consuming 80 percent of the world’s opioids, according to the lawsuit.

About 145 people die in the United States daily from prescription painkillers and heroin, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Four out of five heroin users turned to the illegal drug when painkillers became too expensive or difficult to get.

In La Crosse County, all but two of the 21 people who fatally overdosed in 2016 had used prescription painkillers or heroin, according to the medical examiner’s office. A total of 24 of 26 people who died of an overdose last year had used one of those drugs.

La Crosse County has formed an Overdose Death Review Team, created this year with a $25,000 grant from the state Department of Justice, to study fatal overdose cases to identify missed opportunities for intervention and develop strategies to reduce drug deaths.

Hospitalizations for opioid poisoning rose in La Crosse County to 544 in 2016 from 161 between 2012 and 2014, according to the lawsuit.

Drug manufactures, according to the lawsuit, sought to dramatically increase sales by convincing doctors that it was safe to prescribe opioids to treat not only the kind of severe and short-term pain associated with surgery or cancer, but also less severe, longer-term pain, such as back pain and arthritis.

“Manufacturers knew, however, that their opioid products were addictive, subject to abuse, and not safe or efficacious for long-term use,” the suit states. “Manufacturers’ nefarious plan worked and they dramatically increased their sales and reaped billions upon billions of dollars of profit at the expense of millions of people who are now addicted and the thousands who have died as a result.”

Opioid sales reached $9.6 billion in 2015.

The crisis financially strained services in La Crosse County, impacting human and social services, law enforcement and hospitals, according to the lawsuit.

“Defendants’ conduct also caused the county to incur substantial economic, administrative and social costs relating to opioid addiction and abuse, including criminal justice costs, victimization costs, child protective services costs, lost productivity costs, and education and prevention program costs among others,” the suit states.

The trio of Ohio cases would be the first in a series of “bellwether trials,” or are test cases that give attorneys an idea of how future cases may play out, be it through a judge’s decision, a jury verdict or a settlement. The cases are generally chosen because they are similar and representative of other lawsuits filed in what is known as multidistrict litigation.

Paul Hanly, one of the lead attorneys, said that Polster chose the three Ohio cases because he can preside over them in Cleveland. Lawsuits combined in a multidistrict litigation that go to trial are usually sent back to the federal court in the state where they were originally filed.

A federal judge since 1998, Polster in January said he aims to craft a global settlement to resolve the suits in front of him and ones being heard in state courts nationwide.

The judge’s ultimate goal is to “dramatically reduce the number of the pills that are out there and make sure that the pills that are out there are being used properly.”

The opioid litigation has brought a legal aspect to a problem that both the public and private sector has sought to address for several years.

“The court observes that the vast oversupply of opioid drugs in the United States has caused a plague on its citizens and their local and State governments. Plaintiffs’ request for the ... data, which will allow Plaintiffs to discover how and where the virus grew, is a reasonable step toward defeating the disease,” the judge wrote in an order.

In La Crosse County, all but two of the 21 people who fatally overdosed in 2016 had used prescription painkillers or heroin, according to the medical examiner’s office. A total of 24 of 26 people who died of an overdose last year had used one of those drugs.
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Police and courts reporter

Anne Jungen covers law enforcement and the criminal justice system in La Crosse County. She joined the Tribune reporting staff in December 2005. You can contact her directly at ajungen@lacrossetribune.com or 608-791-8224.

(2) comments

HolmenPackerFan

"...all but two of the 21 people who fatally overdosed in 2016 had used prescription painkillers or heroin..."

So... if you're suing drug manufacturers for drug overdoses, this seems like a great way for lawyers to make the case...just lump street heroin into the number and blame drug manufacturers?

The lawyer suing the nursing home for negligence by not doing enough to protect his plaintiffs from potential murder might say, "All but two of the 126,327 people who died in nursing homes last year either died of old age or were murdered."

Rick Czeczok

LaCrosse county board members really didn't think this through. They just see a fast buck to be made. These kind of governmental moves, will drive the pharmicutical companies out of this country. Instead of facing the real problem, drug cartels and illegal drugs being made overseas. It is just so easy for them to blame the medical community as they can suit them. Put your money at the boarder and the sea ports. That's what's killing America. Great job Medinger, why didn't you mention this in your big write-up. 70 years old and still doing stupid well, look how you almost drove LaCrosse into the dark ages. He is the push behind this suit people, put the blame on him.

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