CLEVELAND (CN) – Jury selection moved forward Wednesday in a bellwether trial over the nationwide opioid epidemic after the federal judge overseeing the sprawling case rejected an effort by drug manufacturers and distributors to postpone the trial.
Manufacturers Teva, Cephalon and Actavis joined distributors AmeriSource Bergen Corp., Walgreen, Cardinal Health Inc., McKesson and Henry Schein Inc. in seeking a delay due to “eve-of-trial publicity.” The Wall Street Journal also reported that AmeriSource, McKesson and Cardinal Health were negotiating an $18 billion settlement that would be paid over 18 years.
U.S. District Judge Dan Polster in Cleveland denied the motion, saying the trial will begin on schedule next Monday and last until approximately Dec. 13.
The judge addressed the first 50 potential jurors and introduced the lawyers on both sides. He asked if any of them knew the lawyers or Polster himself.
He also asked if any of the potential jurors had a negative experience with any of the defendant companies or the plaintiffs, Summit and Cuyahoga counties in Ohio.
Attorneys then had the chance to address the jury pool. Mark Lanier, representing Summit County, compared the alleged opioid-marketing conspiracy to a bank robbery with people playing different roles in the crime.
Polster called for a 15-minute break, but returned over an hour later. He explained that he had been interviewing prospective jurors individually in his chambers. Those closed-door interviews continued through most of the afternoon.
“This has been very efficient,” Polster said when he emerged from chambers at 5:30 p.m.
Before he dismissed the potential jurors for the day, he admonished them not to talk about the case with family members.
“If you see anything about this case in the media, change the channel or turn the page,” he said.
Polster explained that 23 prospective jurors had survived dismissal for cause. When jury selection continues Thursday morning, one more will be selected.
At that point, each side will have six peremptory challenges available. If they are all used, the remaining 12 will be sworn in as the jury.
The prospective jurors had already filled out a 19-page questionnaire that asked questions such as whether they or their relatives had ever used no–prescription opioids such heroin or street fentanyl, been under the care of a pain specialist or visited a pain clinic, or experienced an overdose of any kind.
According to the Associated Press, the opioid crisis has cost 400,000 American lives in the last 20 years and more than $600 billion in the last five years.
The trial in Cleveland will test Summit and Cuyahoga counties’ nuisance claims against the drug manufacturers and distributors. They are just two of more than 2,000 cases that Polster is overseeing brought by cities, counties and tribes across the country.
So far, one state has gone to trial over the opioid epidemic. In August, a judge awarded Oklahoma $572 million in damages after finding the state successfully proved Johnson & Johnson created a public nuisance by aggressively pushing the drugs to doctors.