Ohio Takes Steps Toward Resolution of Opioid Litigation

Ohio has begun settlement talks with opioid-painkiller makers it has sued alleging illegal marketing, and will meet with a federal judge urging settlement of hundreds of similar suits, in early steps toward resolution of the sprawling litigation.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said his staff held separate meetings with Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. Wednesday. He described the meetings as "settlement discussions."

"We outlined with them where we feel Ohio needs help -- in prevention, education and treatment, as well as the huge problem we're having with our foster-care system because so many of the parents are addicted," Mr. DeWine said.

Teva said in a statement, "We appreciate the opportunity to meet with representatives of the Ohio AG's office to discuss this important public health issue."

Johnson & Johnson said: "While we consider the specifics of our discussions with state attorneys general to be confidential, we continue to maintain that allegations made in lawsuits against our company are baseless and unsubstantiated." It added: "At the same time we recognize that opioid abuse and addiction are serious public health issues that must be addressed...we look forward to being a part of the ongoing dialogue."

Mr. DeWine said Ohio also hopes to begin settlement talks with two other defendants in its suit -- Allergan PLC and Endo International PLC -- but hasn't yet scheduled meetings. Defendant Purdue Pharma L.P. has made it clear it isn't willing to meet, he said. Allergan and Endo didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Purdue referred to a letter it sent Mr. DeWine late last year in which it said it was working with a bipartisan group of attorneys general investigating the crisis. Purdue's letter urged Ohio to join those discussions rather than pursue its own lawsuit.

Ohio was one of the first states to sue opioid-painkiller makers, alleging they fueled the opioid-addiction crisis by misrepresenting the benefits and addictive risks of their painkillers. The companies have denied the allegations and said they are committed to the safe and medically appropriate use of the drugs.

More than a dozen states, and more than 250 counties and cities, have filed lawsuits similar to Ohio's, alleging that various opioid-painkiller makers and distributors helped create a crisis of opioid addiction by improperly marketing or distributing the drugs.

Mr. DeWine said that on Wednesday U.S. District Judge Dan Polster, who is overseeing more than 200 of the opioid cases filed in federal court, invited him to attend a meeting with the parties involved in federal court. Mr. DeWine said he will attend the meeting scheduled for Jan. 31 in Cleveland.

Judge Polster is overseeing cases mostly filed by cities and counties. States, by contrast, have filed their lawsuits in state court.

Mr. DeWine said he believes the judge is aiming to spark global settlement talks involving all parties litigating in federal and state court. He said he believes the judge also has invited to the meeting state attorneys general involved in the bipartisan investigation.

"If there's a way to settle this without years of spending time in litigation, that should take place now," Mr. DeWine said. "There's also the argument that you need a global settlement, which is why I think he's reaching out to the states."

Earlier this week, Judge Polster had urged the parties in federal court to reach a swift resolution of the litigation.

Judge Polster's assistant said Thursday the judge wouldn't comment on Mr. DeWine's remarks but that he would be issuing an order in the next week with more information.

James Boffetti, a senior assistant attorney general in New Hampshire working on that state's opioid suit, said Thursday he hadn't yet heard directly from Judge Polster but that if settlement talks are being proposed, he would take a careful look. "Most of us realize that every day a couple hundred people are dying of opioid abuse," he said. "It's a crisis that needs to be addressed."

New Hampshire's lawsuit, filed against Purdue in August, has been stalled by fights over whether the suit should be heard in state or federal court.

Judge Polster had indicated in court Tuesday that his settlement vision could also include parties not in his courtroom, like state attorneys general.

"I can pick up the phone and call any state attorney general I want and invite him or them to be involved, and I'm sure they will," the judge said. "They've got the same interests."

During Tuesday's hearing, Judge Polster noted that his powers as a federal judge have limits, and that he "can't order a state judge to do anything."

Already, a state court judge in Oklahoma has set a May 2019 trial date in a lawsuit filed last June by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter against opioid manufacturers.

Mr. Hunter said in a statement Thursday he appreciated the urgency the judge showed in "getting the case to trial."

Write to Jeanne Whalen at jeanne.whalen@wsj.com and Sara Randazzo at sara.randazzo@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 11, 2018 17:05 ET (22:05 GMT)