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U.S. judge expresses support for novel opioid settlement talks framework

Nate Raymond

Aug 6 (Reuters) - A federal judge on Tuesday expressed support for a novel plan by lawyers representing cities and counties suing drug companies over the U.S. opioid epidemic that would bring every community nationally into their settlement talks despite objections from most states.

U.S. District Judge Dan Polster during a hearing in Cleveland, Ohio said that while the idea was unprecedented, it could allow companies accused in nearly 2,000 lawsuits before him of fueling the epidemic an ability to obtain "global peace."

The proposal calls for creating a class of up to 3,000 counties and 30,000 cities, towns and villages that could vote on whether to accept any settlement the plaintiffs reach with defendants in the opioid litigation.

Numerous state attorneys general pursuing related cases have objected, saying the plan would interfere with their own ability to negotiate settlements and would face numerous future court challenges. But Polster appeared dismissive of those concerns.

"There has to be some vehicle to resolve these lawsuits," said Polster, who added he planned to rule quickly.

Opioids were involved in 400,000 overdose deaths from 1999 to 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thousands of lawsuits by states and local governments have accused drugmakers like OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma of downplaying the risks of opioids in their marketing and accuse drug distributors of failing to halt suspicious opioid orders.

Most of the localities' lawsuits are before Polster, who has pushed for a settlement ahead of an October trial. Other cases by state attorneys general are pending in state courts.

Amid an inability by the parties to reach settlements, lawyers for the cities and counties in June unveiled their novel proposal, which also establishes a formula for allocating settlement funds among local governments.

Attorneys general from 37 states and the District of Columbia objected, saying the framework interfered with their ability to decide how money is spent within their borders.

"It infringes on state sovereignty," Paul Singer, a lawyer with the Texas Office of the Attorney General, argued on Tuesday.

He argued it would also interfere with the states own "active," separate settlement talks.

Bloomberg News, citing people familiar with the matter, on Tuesday reported drug distributors McKesson Corp, Cardinal Health Inc and AmerisourceBergen Corp had proposed paying $10 billion to resolve the states' claims.

McKesson said it "has made no settlement offers." AmerisourceBergen said it is vigorously defending itself, while Cardinal declined to comment. (Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston Editing by Bill Berkrot)