Justice Department seeks role in opioid settlement talks

(Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department on Monday sought court permission to participate in settlement negotiations aimed at resolving lawsuits by state and local governments against opioid manufacturers and distributors.

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Department of Justice building is seen in Washington, U.S., February 1, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

The Justice Department said in a brief it wanted to participate in talks overseen by a federal judge in Cleveland as a “friend of the court” that would provide information to help craft non-monetary remedies to combat the opioid crisis.

“We are determined to see that justice is done in this case and that ultimately we end this nation’s unprecedented drug crisis,” U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement.

Last month, the Justice Department asked U.S. District Judge Dan Polster for 30 days to decide whether to participate in the litigation given the costs the federal government had incurred because of the opioid epidemic.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioids were involved in over 42,000 overdose deaths in 2016. U.S. President Donald Trump has called for litigation against companies over their roles in the opioid epidemic.

But Monday’s brief signaled that the Justice Department would not be seeking to participate as an active litigant in the litigation before Polster, who is overseeing at least 433 opioid-related lawsuits brought primarily by cities and counties.

The lawsuits generally accuse drugmakers of deceptively marketing opioids and allege distributors ignored red flags indicating the painkillers were being diverted for improper uses. The defendants have denied wrongdoing.

Polster has been pushing for a global settlement and has invited state attorneys general who have cases and probes not before him to participate in the negotiations.

The defendants include drugmakers Purdue Pharma LP, Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd, Endo International PLC and Allergan PLC and distributors AmerisourceBergen Corp, Cardinal Health Inc and McKesson Corp.

In Monday’s brief, the Justice Department said that while it was pursuing opioid-related criminal and civil cases, it would not be proper to consolidate them with the lawsuits before Polster.

Nevertheless, it said the federal government could provide information to assist in crafting a settlement.

The Justice Department noted the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had already agreed to produce data on the names and market shares of opioid manufacturers and distributors in each state.

The department said it also had an interest in facilitating discussions about the parties’ “legal obligations” given the federal government’s own substantial financial stake in fighting the epidemic.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Tom Brown and Peter Cooney