CLEVELAND — Jury selection began Wednesday in the first federal trial over the opioid epidemic despite a last-minute request from lawyers to delay it because of news reports on a settlement offer.
Two Ohio counties claim drug companies that made, distributed and sold prescription painkillers engaged in a deadly conspiracy that has inflicted massive damage on their communities and created a public nuisance that costs the counties hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
The legal situation became a bit more complicated Wednesday as multiple defendants asked Judge Dan Polster to delay the trial after reports that the three big drug distributors were offering a total of $18 billion over 18 years to settle the suits set for trial and some 2,000 others.
Two people with knowledge of the talks confirmed to The Associated Press that the offer had been made. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to disclose details from ongoing talks. The offer was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
The lawyers argued that jurors who read or saw any of the coverage would be tainted when learning of the massive amount of money possibly being discussed.
Polster denied the motions and said he didn’t believe many of the potential jurors would have been exposed to the stories. He said he will question members of the jury pool to determine whether they were aware of the coverage.
“There’s no way to avoid this,” Polster said. “Something leaked out. I can’t control leaks and we’re going forward.”
Polster said a delay could have pushed the trial into next year.
“Only a fool would start a trial in Cleveland in January or February,” Polster said.
If a settlement is reached for any of the defendants before or even during the trial, it would end their part of the case. But it’s not clear whether the trial would proceed against other companies if some settled.
It’s expected to take up to three days for attorneys for Summit and Cuyahoga counties, home to Akron and Cleveland, and six drug companies to select a 12-person jury. Prospective jurors from nine northeast Ohio counties were mailed a 19-page questionnaire that asked whether there were people in their lives who used, abused or overdosed on opioids.
Those with close connections to the crisis are expected to be excluded from serving on the jury. The pool does not include people from Summit County, which is a separate subdistrict in the 40-county Northern District of Ohio and has its own federal courthouse.
Trial arguments are scheduled to begin Monday. The trial is considered a bellwether because it could help shape how future trials are conducted or possibly spur the global settlement sought by Polster, who is overseeing more than 2,000 lawsuits filed by local governments and other entities against drug companies.
The federal lawsuits have been merged into a class action known as multi-district litigation. Polster has made clear since being assigned to the litigation that he wanted communities dealing with effects of the opioid crisis to get help as soon as possible.
Counting prescription drugs and illegal ones such as heroin and illicitly made fentanyl, opioids have been blamed for more than 400,000 deaths in the U.S. since 2000.
Five drug manufacturers, including Purdue Pharma, have used settlements or bankruptcy filings to be dismissed from the trial, winnowing the list of defendants to six: generic drugmakers Actavis and Cephalon, which are both now owned by Teva; the distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, Henry Schein and McKesson; and the pharmacy chain Walgreens — but only in its role as a distributor.
The companies say they complied with the law and supplied only drugs that doctors prescribed.
The trial itself is expected to last about seven weeks.
Mulvihill reported from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.