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June 14 (Reuters) - Lawyers representing county and municipal governments accusing drug manufacturers and distributors of fueling the U.S. opioid epidemic proposed a novel plan on Friday that would allow every community nationally to participate in negotiating billions of dollars in settlements.
The proposal came in a motion filed in federal court in Cleveland, Ohio, where 1,850 lawsuits largely by local governments are pending seeking to hold companies, including OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP, responsible for the opioid abuse crisis.
The plaintiffs' lawyers sought to certify for the purpose of settlement talks a class that would include every U.S. county and municipality in the country, who would then have the right to vote on accepting any deal with a company.
The lawyers say creating the class of 5,000 counties and 19,500 municipalities would fit with calls by U.S. District Judge Dan Polster, who presides over the cases, for a comprehensive settlement that addresses the national epidemic.
The companies have resisted settling, worried about how they can settle with some cities when more could later sue, said Joe Rice, a lawyer for the plaintiffs at the law firm Motley Rice.
"The aim is to form a united group vested with the power to negotiate, vote on and deliver finality if there is an opportunity to negotiate a settlement," Rice said.
Rice acknowledged that some defendants may oppose the proposal out of concern it could expose them to greater liabilities. Many local governments have also chosen so far to not sue and could decide to opt-out.
Opioids were involved in a record 47,600 overdose deaths in 2017, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention says.
In more than 2,000 lawsuits nationally, state and local governments have alleged that drugmakers such as Purdue, Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd overstated the benefits while downplaying addictive risks of opioids in marketing their pain treatments.
The lawsuits also accuse distributors like McKesson Corp , AmerisourceBergen Corp and Cardinal Health Inc of failing to halt suspicious opioid orders.
The companies deny wrongdoing and say they cannot be found to be the overdose epidemic's cause. Plaintiffs claim it could cost about $480 billion to address the epidemic, according to defense court filings in April.
Most cases are before Polster, while others are in state courts, including a lawsuit by Oklahoma's attorney general against J&J that is now on trial after the state reached settlements worth $270 million with Purdue and $85 million with Teva.
The first trial before Polster is set for October. (Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston Editing by Bill Berkrot)