GREENSBORO — Begun with sharp allegations of wrongdoing, the opioid lawsuits filed by Greensboro, Guilford County and other local governments in the Piedmont Triad are headed for a less combative phase — at least for the time being.
They are among similar complaints by about 2,000 other local governments that a federal judge approved last week to proceed as a “negotiating class” aimed at settling the multibillion dollar dispute as quickly as possible, without trial and all the preceding months of legal argument.
That means legal teams representing local governments across the Piedmont Triad will be going back to the entities that hired them for guidance, said Greensboro lawyer Don Vaughan, who is part of the legal team representing them.
“We will be discussing the next chapter with all the various cities and counties in the next few weeks,” he said.
Each will have to answer “yes” or “no” whether they want to remain in the massive lawsuit as it moves forward in search of a so-called “global” settlement in which multiple parties reach a deal.
Local governments might net less money in such a settlement than if they forced a trial with each corporation. But a settlement could provide the money much sooner when it’s most needed to help people caught in the web of addiction stemming from the national glut of prescription opioids in years past.
Of course, there’s always a risk of losing a jury trial after lengthy pretrial maneuvering and heavy, upfront expenses for expert witnesses and other investigative costs.
U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster certified the plan for a “negotiating class” last week and described it as a “powerful, creative and helpful” alternative, The Washington Post and other news outlets reported.
Late last year, a panel of federal judges picked the Cleveland, Ohio, judge to preside over all the similar lawsuits being filed by cities, counties and other local governments against major pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors for the harm caused by their allegedly reckless opioid marketing.
In authorizing it to proceed Wednesday, Polster said he hoped that forming such a large, negotiating class would “expedite relief to communities so they can better address this devastating national health crisis,” the Post reported.
Vaughan declined to comment on how he planned to advise local officials, but he said “every one of our clients will have the opportunity to accept or reject the negotiating class.”
“This negotiating class is a brand new tool,” he said of the technique.
If they decide to join the next stage, local governments would get another vote if legal teams representing them eventually agree on a settlement with the pharmaceutical giants.
Again, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, Greensboro City Council and other local governments would face a binary choice to approve or reject any proposed settlement.
If 75% of the class members approve, the settlement would be accepted and the money distributed among members of the class.
The proposal would be scrapped with anything less than a 75% majority.
Meanwhile, the negotiating class’ search for a settlement is complicated by the fact that the companies likely will want to settle all opioid lawsuits against them at the same time.
In addition to those pending in the Ohio federal court, North Carolina and about 40 other states either already have filed their own lawsuits seeking opioid damages or they are conducting investigations that could lead to new legal action.
North Carolina and a number of other states already have rejected a tentative settlement worth up to $12 billion that lawyers for the 2,000 cities and counties reached with Purdue Pharma.