Jury selection begins in opioid trial despite delay request

CLEVELAND (AP) — 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.

Potential jurors were asked whether they had opinions on the drug companies going on trial.
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.
Two hundred thirty-eight potential jurors filled out the questionnaires. Of them, 150 were summoned to
court, including 50 on Wednesday. They were asked to raise their hands if they knew of or had opinions
on the drug companies in the trial. Those who did were called into the judge’s chambers for individual
questioning.
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, and
McKesson; and the pharmacy chain Walgreens — but only in its role as a distributor. A smaller
distributor, Henry Schein, is named only in Summit County’s complaint.
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.