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Judge orders big US drug companies to face opioid trial

Defendants include Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson and retailers such as Walgreens and Walmart

A US judge has ordered that drugmakers such as Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of OxyContin (pictured), distributors and retailers should all face trial for their role in the country's opioid crisis. AP Photo
A US judge has ordered that drugmakers such as Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of OxyContin (pictured), distributors and retailers should all face trial for their role in the country's opioid crisis. AP Photo

A US judge on Tuesday rejected efforts by major drugmakers, pharmacies and distributors to dismiss claims that they caused the nation's opioid crisis, clearing the way for a scheduled landmark trial even as he pushes for a nationwide settlement.

US District Judge Dan Polster, who is overseeing about 2,000 opioid lawsuits by states, counties and cities, said the plaintiffs can try to prove that drugmakers' deceptive marketing of the painkillers caused a harmful, massive increase in supply that pharmacies and distributors did not do enough to stop.

"A factfinder could reasonably infer that these failures were a substantial factor in producing the alleged harm suffered by plaintiffs," the Cleveland-based judge wrote.

The ruling was among seven decisions and orders totalling 80 pages from Polster before a scheduled trial on October 21 by two Ohio counties against Purdue Pharma, the OxyContin maker accused of fuelling the epidemic, and several other defendants.

Polster also refused to dismiss civil conspiracy claims against drugmakers, pharmacies and distributors, and said federal law did not pre-empt much of the plaintiffs' case.

Other defendants included the drugmakers Endo International and Johnson & Johnson; pharmacy operators CVS Health, Rite Aid, Walgreens Boots Alliance and Walmart; and distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson.

Polster also refused to dismiss a variety of claims against generic drugmakers Allergan, Mallinckrodt and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries.

Opioid addiction claimed roughly 400,000 lives in the United States from 1999 to 2017, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Critics of the industry said opioid makers hid the addiction and abuse risks of prolonged use from consumers.

Rite Aid's lawyers declined to comment. Lawyers for other major defendants did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Paul Hanly, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said his clients were pleased that Polster "almost uniformly" agreed with their positions on the dismissal requests and whether to admit various testimony.

J&J has said it will appeal an Oklahoma judge's August 26 order that it pay $572.1 million to that state for the company's role in the opioid epidemic.

Purdue and its owners, the Sackler family, have been in talks on a possible $10 billion — $12 billion nationwide settlement of opioid claims, two people familiar with the matter said last week.

That accord could include a bankruptcy filing for the company, which is based in Stamford, Connecticut. Purdue and the Sacklers have denied the allegations.

Updated: September 4, 2019 11:21 AM

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