Ohio Judge Won’t Recuse Himself From Sprawling Opioid Case

(CN) – The federal judge overseeing thousands of cases at the center of an upcoming nationwide opioid trial in Ohio has rejected a motion by drug distributors, pharmacies and retailers to recuse himself.

U.S. District Judge Dan Polster is pictured in his Cleveland office on Jan. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

U.S. District Judge Dan Polster declined to grant a motion to disqualify in a 14-page order Thursday. The judge said he “is confident that no reasonable person can legitimately question my impartiality” based on comments he has made to the press and public about the human toll of the deadly opioid epidemic.

“Publicly acknowledging this human toll does not suggest I am biased; it shows that I am human,” Polster wrote.

The companies had argued that Polster should disqualify himself from overseeing a weeks-long bellwether trial scheduled to begin in Cleveland on Oct. 21. But the judge rejected the notion that he favors the more than 2,000 cities, municipalities and tribes that are suing the pharmaceutical companies.

The companies argued that was borne out by the judge’s preference for early settlements in the multidistrict lawsuits rather than drawn-out court proceedings. They said that the intense media scrutiny in Polster’s courtroom also threw into doubt his impartiality.

In his order, Polster said that he was only outlining the devastating impact of the opioid crisis, and nothing he has said or done shows bias. He said that he had been careful to assign responsibility to “everyone in the case” including the U.S. government, the defendants and plaintiffs, and opioid addicts.

“Acknowledging the immense scope of the opioid crisis, and calling on all entities who have the power to ameliorate it to join me in doing so without delay, does not reflect any bias or prejudice toward any party to the litigation,” Polster wrote.

Polster noted that the companies had not met the “exceedingly high” bar to disqualify him.

In September, Purdue Pharma reached a proposed agreement to settle thousands of claims from cities, counties and tribes that sued the pharmaceutical giant over its role in the nationwide opioid epidemic. The company also filed for bankruptcy, which means it will not be part of the trial that will test the claims of Summit and Cuyahoga counties.

“I believe that without the cohesiveness that now exists among the 2,000 litigating cities and counties, the proposed multi-billion dollar bankruptcy settlement with Purdue and the Sackler family would not have occurred,” Polster wrote.

He added that the deadly epidemic was part of everyday conversations for Ohioans, and comments he made in court or to the press reflected that.

“These comments do not show bias, nor do they provide grounds for a reasonable person to question my impartiality,” the judge wrote.

The executive committee for the plaintiffs in the case said that they were preparing to show in next month’s trial how the pharmaceutical industry had benefited from a public health crisis.

“We are gratified the court has powerfully rejected this last-ditch effort to derail the upcoming trial, which cast unfair and undeserved aspersions on the court,” the committee said in a joint statement.

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