CLEVELAND - The federal judge overseeing more than 600 lawsuits filed by government entities collectively seeking billions of dollars to address the nation's opioid crisis said Thursday he will continue to push for solutions to the problem while lawyers continue their settlement talks.
U.S. District Judge Dan Polster held an open-court session in Cleveland on Thursday before meeting separately with attorneys for the government entities and those representing drug manufacturers, distributors and pharmacy companies blamed in lawsuits for helping create a crisis that killed 42,000 Americans in 2016.
"I still am resolved to be the catalyst to take some steps this year to turn the trajectory of this epidemic down instead of up, up, up," Polster said.
The hope is that a global settlement can be reached. Comparisons have been made to the 1998 settlement involving tobacco companies that resulted in the payment of $206 billion to 46 states over a 25-year period.
Polster wants to forge a deal on business practices and funding to reverse the crisis. The first trials, scheduled for next March, will be for lawsuits filed by Cleveland and the northeast Ohio counties of Cuyahoga and Summit. Polster said Thursday those trials could be an "aid" to settlement talks.
Francis McGovern, a Duke University law professor appointed as a special master to help oversee negotiations, said both sides have been "co-operatively addressing all the issues" during settlement talks while seeking ways "to achieve a resolution." McGovern said a meeting has been scheduled for July to seek solutions outside the context of litigation.
The settlement talks also involve lawyers for a group of about 40 states that are conducting a joint investigation but have not yet sued and other state governments that have sued but in state rather than federal courts.
David Domina, an attorney based in Omaha, Nebraska, told Polster during the open-court hearing that he came to Cleveland to speak on behalf of Native American tribes especially hard hit by the crisis. He said he would like tribes to be placed in their own "track" for negotiations.
"Those people have been marginalized in every significant thing that has happened in the history of the United States, and they want to not be marginalized in these proceedings," Domina said.
Polster said there would be no resolution without the tribes.
"This court is not going to marginalize them," Polster said. "It's just the opposite."
Earlier this week, Polster ordered the government to share data on opioid distribution and suspicious orders from every state, not just states hit hardest by the crisis.
Several dozen people from a coalition of groups representing families and individuals affected by the crisis gathered outside the courthouse for a rally before Thursday's hearing.
Greg Williams, co-founder of Connecticut-based facingaddiction.org, said he hoped officials will have learned a lesson from the tobacco settlement, which resulted in states "squandering" millions of dollars not related to addiction.
"We know what a bad settlement looks like," Williams said. "We could save thousands of lives if this money is directed properly."