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Proposal Could Put AG In Charge Of Opioid Lawsuits In Ohio

[Anthony Pitch / Shutterstock]
An open pill bottle viewed from above

Updated: 4:18 p.m., Aug. 28, 2019

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost has circulated draft legislation that could allow the state — not counties — to take the lead in lawsuits over the opioid crisis.

The news comes as Purdue Pharma considers a settlement, reportedly valued at $10 billion to $12 billion, with more than 2,000 local governments suing drug companies over the opioid crisis.

Nationwide, state attorneys general and counties have disputed who should control potential payouts from the drug industry. AGs opposed a plan from counties to negotiate and distribute settlements with local jurisdictions across the country.

The Ohio draft bill would empower the AG’s office to consolidate local government lawsuits that deal with matters of “statewide concern.” Under the proposal, the AG could ask to dismiss local suits in favor of a single state complaint, depositing settlement or judgment money into a state-controlled fund. At least 20 percent of any settlement would be required to go back to the cities or counties involved in the cases.

Yost’s proposal drew protests from local government officials across Ohio. Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan said he was “disturbed and disappointed” by the idea. Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein called the move a “power grab” in comments to the Columbus Dispatch.

Yost disagreed.

“Cities and counties that individually race to the courthouse, hoping for the luck of the draw and attempting to get any money that they can, are grasping for power,” Yost said in a written statement. “This is a state claim with statewide impact and should not be divided amongst political subdivisions. The interests of the state of Ohio are much greater than the sum of the interests of its political subdivisions. A consolidated claim allows for broad representation in this fight for the greater good so that we can fairly deliver equitable relief to communities based on impact.”

Leaders in Summit County, which is set for an October trial against drug companies in federal court, spoke out against Yost’s proposal on Wednesday. County Executive Ilene Shapiro called the draft bill “unconstitutional” in a written statement.

“Our first responders, emergency teams, police force, public health and addiction treatment services, children’s services, and many more are on the front lines and are responding to the opioid epidemic every day,” Shapiro said. “At this level of government, we are in the best position to serve our local communities and we know what we have spent and what we need for the future. 

The scheduled October trial, which also includes Cuyahoga County, will be the first of thousands of local government claims to go before a jury in U.S. District Court in Cleveland. State attorneys general have separately filed suit in state courts across the country.

Gov. Mike DeWine also cautioned against Yost’s draft proposal when asked about it Aug. 28, saying local governments have borne a large cost of the opioid crisis.

“I think the idea of that legislation, I think that would be a serious mistake,” DeWine said.

Local governments are not suing drug companies out of greed, but out of a desire to recoup the costs of the crisis, said Suzanne Dulaney, the executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Ohio.

“They’ve been motivated by two factors: One is to recover the staggering costs incurred in our jails, our child protectives system, courts, coroner’s office, on behalf of the taxpayers they represent,” she said. “And two, to shine a light on a broken drug monitoring system that clearly failed our communities. You don’t forget a budget hearing where a coroner asks for emergency funding to buy trailers because you’ve run out of space to put the bodies.”

Two drug companies, Endo International and Allergan, agreed in principle to settle claims brought by Cuyahoga and Summit Counties last week. On Monday, an Oklahoma judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay the state $572 million, finding the company responsible for helping to fuel the opioid crisis there.

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