Can One Judge Solve the Nation’s Opioid Crisis?

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Federal judge Dan Polster of Cleveland faces the daunting challenge of resolving more than 400 lawsuits brought by cities, counties and Native American tribes against central figures in the opioid crisis, including makers of the prescription painkillers, companies that distribute them, and pharmacy chains that sell them. In January, he said he intended to dispense with legal norms like discovery and would not preside over years of “unraveling complicated conspiracy theories.” He ordered the lawyers involved to prepare for settlement discussions immediately, and said the case should provide meaningful solutions to a national crisis by the end of this year, the New York Times reports. “I did a little math,” he said, alluding to overdoses. “About 150 Americans are going to die today, just today, while we’re meeting.”

In private conversations, many lawyers questioned Polster’s grasp of the issues and predicted that a stepped-up timetable would collapse. The consolidated opioid lawsuits may be even more complex than most. Rather than just one kind of defendant, this litigation has several, not only drug makers but also distributors and retailers. That makes the apportionment of liability even more contentious, with defendants blaming one another. The defendants say the drugs were approved by the Food and Drug Administration and prescribed by doctors. Plaintiffs claim that manufacturers aggressively marketed the pills for years, despite knowing about addictive properties; that distributors shipped alarming quantities without reporting to the authorities, and that pharmacy chains looked away while selling flag-raising amounts to individuals. The U.S. Justice Department has entered the case. Polster grew up in a middle-class Cleveland neighborhood that his parents fought to integrate. Their activism taught him “ordinary people can do extraordinary things if they don’t take a pass.” His Jewish faith has also shaped his outlook on justice and compassion.

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