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Drug Companies May Bring Up Cuyahoga County Jail In Opioid Trial

The nation's first federal opioid trial is set to begin Oct. 21 in Cleveland and lawyers for both sides are already wrangling for position. [Phil Lowe / shutterstock]
Pills in a bottle

Drug companies may try to turn the tables on Cuyahoga County in the coming federal opioid trial, presenting evidence on the troubled the county jail and in the department of children and family services in an effort to minimize the role of their drugs in local problems.

With jury selection scheduled to begin next week and opening statements set for Oct. 21, attorneys for both sides are disputing which evidence and witnesses should be presented at trial.

In late September, plaintiffs asked U.S. District Judge Dan Polster to prevent defendants from mentioning deaths and investigations at the county jail, saying the topics are irrelevant to the opioid case.

This week, drug companies countered that Cuyahoga County may have itself to blame for the damage caused by opioids in jail. Defense attorneys said they might bring up alleged drug smuggling by county jail guards.

“Defendants are also entitled to introduce evidence showing how corruption of County officials led to failures to address the opioid crisis, as well as evidence showing that the County Sheriff’s Department did not adequately address opioid-related harms and criminal activities that had nothing to do with defendants, including illicit opioid dealing by the County’s own employees,” drug company attorneys wrote in an Oct. 7 court filing.

Drug industry defendants submitted a list of possible witnesses that includes former jail director Ken Mills and former director of ambulatory care Gary Brack, who last year accused Mills of blocking the hiring of jail nurses.

Mills has since pleaded not guilty to charges that he lied to Cuyahoga County Council about hiring more nurses and Brack is suing the county and MetroHealth after losing his job.

Plaintiffs sought this week to remove Brack and several others from the list of defense witnesses, saying drug company attorneys didn’t disclose their names during discovery. Plaintiffs’ attorneys have also asked Polster to bar defendants from referring to media coverage of the Cuyahoga County justice system, including the podcast Serial.

Defense attorneys this week said they don’t plan to discuss Serial.

Attorneys for the drug company defendants indicated they might discuss abuse reports filed with Cuyahoga County Children and Family Services about Aniya Day-Garrett, a 4-year-old who was killed by her mother and mother’s boyfriend. The attorneys wrote that increased calls to the department in the wake of Day-Garrett's death shows that opioids alone aren’t the cause of a growing caseload.

Defendants also want to stop plaintiffs’ attorneys from mentioning drug companies’ profits and bar them from asking if witnesses feel responsible for the opioid crisis. They also want Polster to prohibit plaintiffs from asking witnesses to share personal stories about opioid use.

Polster has not yet ruled on the motions.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.