Thousands of US cities and counties in federal opioid lawsuit file for class status

The move could inch the parties closer to a global settlement.

June 14, 2019, 7:12 PM

Thousands of U.S. counties, cities and villages filed for class action status in a massive, multi-district litigation against opioid manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies on Friday.

New York's Albany County and New Jersey's Bergen County, as well as Atlanta; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Phoenix are just a handful of the approximately 1,800 municipalities already involved in the massive litigation against central figures and companies responsible for the national opioid crisis.

The federal bundle of cases accuses opioid manufacturers, like Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson, of aggressively marketing the drugs while misleading doctors and the public about how addictive they are.

They also accuse distributors, like McKesson, of moving huge quantities of the painkillers without alerting authorities, and accuse pharmacies like CVS Health and Walgreens of selling large amounts of the pills to patients.

Plaintiffs' lawyers in the National Prescription Opiate Litigation filed documents requesting a class status to consolidate the thousands of federal lawsuits already suing opioid manufacturers, one of the plaintiff's co-lead lawyers told ABC News.

"This is an attempt to bind together all of the cities and counties in the U.S. to negotiate as one as if the defendants are interested in a global deal," co-lead for the federal litigation Paul J. Hanly Jr. said.

"Imagine a legion of soldiers prepping in battle against an adversary. You don’t want soldiers wandering around in different directions. You want the soldiers to be unified. There's strength in numbers," Hanly said.

"Normally only the plaintiff who filed the lawsuit has their case resolved by the court. But in a class action, it's representative litigation, which means that anyone who is a member of the class and doesn't opt out has their claim resolved," Maureen Carroll, who teaches complex litigation at the University of Michigan Law School, told ABC News.

It could be a step to resolve the case, because companies often prefer to settle all potential suits through class action, according to Carroll.

In fact,the judge appointed to oversee the case, Judge Dan Aaron Polster of the North District of Ohio, has already preemptively urged both sides toward a settlement.

In a statement to ABC News, OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma said: "The company is committed to working with all parties toward a resolution that helps bring needed solutions to communities and states to address this public health crisis. We continue to work collaboratively within the MDL process outlined by Judge Polster."

Johnson & Johnson declined to comment on filing for class status.

McKesson, CVS Health and Walgreens did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Hanly said there is no settlement amount attached to the class ruling but that a potential settlement in the case could be more than $100 billion.

"Sometimes defendants like to enter into class settlements because it offers more closure," Carroll said.

An average of 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.