When Oklahoma wrested a $270 million settlement last week from Purdue Pharma for its alleged role in fueling the opioid epidemic, the reverberations were felt about 1,400 miles away in Delaware County.
That’s where upward of 40 cases, including Philadelphia’s, are grouped together in a coordinated action against opioid makers and distributors, and where little progress has been made over the last 18 months.
More than a dozen counties are taking new steps to get out of Delco, and get on with litigation in their home counties, citing the cases’ lack of movement in the Delco courthouse.
“It’s my opinion that we are not getting a fair shake to get our cases to trial in a reasonable amount of time,” said lawyer Joseph Cappelli, who represents Bensalem township and 14 counties, largely in Western Pennsylvania. “The Oklahoma settlement," he added, “was the result of the plaintiffs in that case having an opportunity to push their case and get a trial date.”
Oklahoma’s attorney general is still barreling toward a May 28 trial for the remaining defendants in the lawsuit. About 1,600 opioid cases, consolidated in federal court in Cleveland, are heading for a bellwether trial set for October. The companies accused of downplaying the risk of addiction, including Purdue, and of failing to flag suspicious orders of painkillers, are vigorously defending against the claims.
At the state level, Cappelli filed a motion Monday in Delco court, asking to break up the proceedings on behalf of 13 counties.
One reason for the request, he said, is that Delaware County’s case isn’t there anymore. That suit — the first opioid case filed by a Pennsylvania county — brought all the others to Media, Pa. It has since been transferred to federal court.
Another reason: “Nothing is progressing," Cappelli said. “It would be more efficient to have each and every [case] … sent back to their counties for that litigation to go forward.”
On Friday, Lehigh County District Attorney James Martin submitted a status update to a Lehigh judge, and asked the court to let his case resume there, as well. The update, from the law firm representing the suit, cited “the utter stagnancy of the Delaware County action.”
There’s been no discovery in the cases, the letter said, and no rulings or orders issued by the third judge to oversee the suits “despite repeated requests by multiple counsel for various parties.”
Whereas Oklahoma’s strategy succeeded, Lehigh County’s “similar litigation strategy was derailed,” wrote attorney William Platt. The Lehigh case had a court-ordered trial date for March 2020, but the lawyers say they’ve lost nine months on that schedule.
A spokesperson for the Delaware County court said the timelines for the cases, under two case management orders, “have been adhered to,” and that a final deadline for certain filings is set for early this month. The court has “every confidence” that Judge Barry Dozor, who took over the cases in January, will continue to “fairly, justly and efficiently preside,” said district court administrator Gerald Montella.
Paul Hanly, who represents Delaware County, and is one of the lead attorneys in charge of the Pennsylvania state cases, called the Oklahoma settlement “a welcome development for our clients in Pennsylvania, because it suggests, but does not guarantee, that at least one defendant appears anxious to resolve cases without the risk of trial.” Hanly is co-lead counsel for the block of federal cases in Cleveland, too.
But it remains unclear just where Hanly’s Delco case will end up. On Thursday, a panel of judges met to review whether to transfer the case from federal court in Philadelphia, to federal court in Cleveland with the other opioid suits.
As of Monday afternoon, the panel had not yet issued a decision.
Hanly previously told The Inquirer that if the case goes to Cleveland, he will try to convince the court there to send it back to Pennsylvania. Hanly also has maintained that coordinating the Pennsylvania cases in one court is more efficient, and that he, and his colleagues representing Delaware County, are the best equipped to oversee them.
But lawyers for other counties, and for Philadelphia, are still trying to land spots on the lead counsel committee. Montella said the Delaware County court will be taking up those petitions, as well.
Another one of the lead attorneys for the federal opioid cases, Joe Rice, also has a foot in Pennsylvania. The cases here are “bogged down,” said Rice, whose firm represents opioid suits for Pittsburgh, and for Allegheny and Erie counties.
The Oklahoma settlement — in which Purdue denied any wrongdoing — was the first, and involved just one company so far. “It’s a multi-billion-dollar problem,” Rice said. But for Pennsylvania to get the benefit from litigation, “we need to get the litigation moving.”