Drug companies facing more than 2,000 lawsuits over their alleged roles in the opioid epidemic demanded Saturday that the federal judge overseeing the case step aside, questioning his impartiality because he has consistently urged both sides to settle the case.
The request comes after a series of rulings against the companies by U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster in the landmark trial slated to begin Oct. 21.
"Defendants do not bring this motion lightly," the lawyers wrote in a filing Saturday morning on behalf of some of the nation's biggest drug distributors and retailers but no drug manufacturers. "Taken as a whole and viewed objectively, the record clearly demonstrates that recusal is necessary."
The lawyers contended Polster has overstepped his authority and created the appearance of bias. They cited his statements since the beginning of the case encouraging settlement so that money for badly-needed drug treatment and other services could go quickly to communities hard hit by the opioid epidemic.
With just two counties "seeking $8 billion in cash for so-called 'abatement,' the Court has determined that it, not a jury, has the discretion to decide how much money defendants may pay to government agencies for medical treatment and other addiction-related services and initiatives," the drug companies wrote.
Polster could not be reached for comment.
Lawyers for the more than 2,000 cities, towns, counties and tribal communities suing the drug industry called the attempt to remove Polster a desperate move. The lead plaintiffs' lawyers said in a statement they "remain confident the judiciary will swiftly respond to yet another attempt by the opioid defendants to delay the trial."
The plaintiffs have demanded the drug companies, including manufacturers, distributors and retailers, pay billions of dollars for the damage they allegedly caused. Since 1999, more than 200,000 people have overdosed on prescription narcotics, and another 200,000 have died from overdoses of heroin and illegal fentanyl, according to government data.
Two Ohio counties, Cuyahoga and Summit, are scheduled to begin trial next month as test cases to determine how other plaintiffs and defendants may fare before a jury.
As of now, they would face off against drug distributors McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and Henry Schein; manufacturers Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceuticals; and retail drugstore chain Walgreens.
Two law professors called the defendants' motion unusual and saw little chance it would succeed.
The law that authorizes large, consolidated cases like this one - known as "multidistrict litigation"- explicitly recognizes that judges would use the opportunity to encourage settlements, said Carl Tobias, a professor at Richmond University College of Law.
"Judges overseeing MDLs are supposed to encourage settlement and most MDLs end with settlements" for the majority of plaintiffs, Tobias wrote in an email.
Alexandra Lahav, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, agreed. "It is a highly unusual motion and not one that I think can win," she wrote in an email. "I am not sure what the strategy is behind bringing it, and filing on Saturday, other than public relations."
She added, however, "I don't think there is anything wrong with filing a non-frivolous motion to bring attention to an issue and start a conversation. Given the courts' historic emphasis on settlement, I just don't see how that conversation goes anywhere."
Earlier this week, Purdue Pharma, the company most widely blamed for its role in the crisis, announced a tentative settlement with all the municipalities and about half the state attorneys general who have separately sued members of the drug industry in state courts. If finalized, that agreement would remove Purdue from the first trial.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost also has asked to halt the trial, saying the municipalities should allow states to take the lead in the litigation.
In the lead-up to the trial, Polster denied a series of motions filed by the companies seeking to throw out, or limit, the case against them. Those included a defense motion to dismiss arguments the drug companies conspired with each other to protect their companies from enforcement actions by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Polster also rejected a motion to dismiss plaintiffs' legal theory that the companies created a "public nuisance" by inundating communities across the nation with enormous amounts of pain pills. And he denied a defense motion to dismiss a strategy to pursue the case under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, originally created to prosecute the Mafia.
This week, Polster agreed to an unusual plan that would include 30,000 jurisdictions across the United States in any settlement, if they agreed to it. It is aimed at preventing more lawsuits and ensuring that communities everywhere get some money from any settlement.
In their motion, the drug distributors and retail chains said the crucial test is whether a reasonable person would conclude that Polster appeared biased against the defendants.
They cited Polster's statements inside and outside court "evidencing a personal objective to do something meaningful to abate the opioid crisis, with the funding to be provided through defendants' settlements" as well as "numerous improper comments to the media and in public forums about the litigation."
And they noted Polster's "apparent prejudgment of the merits and outcome of the litigation and singular focus on, and substantial involvement in, settlement discussions."
They also protested his decision to limit defendants to 12.5 hours apiece to present their cases during the upcoming trial.
Last month, an appellate court admonished some of the defendants for a legal attack on Polster over an unrelated question. The panel of appellate judges said their claim that Polster’s “assurances are not entitled to our respect because [he] has been deceptive or duplicitous . . . is a very serious allegation and we find no merit to it.”