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Judge overseeing opioid litigation won't disqualify himself


(Reuters) — The U.S. judge overseeing nationwide litigation over the opioid epidemic on Thursday refused to disqualify himself, after major pharmacies and drug distributors said he was biased against them and pressing too hard for a costly settlement.

Calling the opioid epidemic "one of the greatest tragedies of our time," U.S. District Judge Dan Polster in Cleveland admitted he had been "very active" in encouraging a settlement but said he was "confident that no reasonable person can legitimately question my impartiality."

He also said addressing the epidemic should be the job of the government's executive and legislative branches but "these are not ordinary times," and that not settling could overwhelm the courts and drive "most" of the defendants into bankruptcy.

"It is important for our citizens to know what I am doing and to have confidence that the judicial branch is up to the task," Judge Polster wrote. "The moving defendants complain that I have had a 'personal mission' from the start of the case. That is true, but it does not suggest any bias or partiality."

Judge Polster oversees more than 2,000 lawsuits by state and local municipalities over opioids, including a bellwether trial by Ohio's Cuyahoga and Summit counties scheduled for Oct. 21.

The companies that sought Judge Polster's disqualification included the retailers CVS Health Corp., Rite Aid Corp., Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. and Walmart Inc., and distributors AmerisourceBergen Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., Henry Schein Inc. and McKesson Corp.

Their lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Lawyers representing the counties had no immediate comment.

The request for Judge Polster's disqualification followed a series of rulings by him in the counties' favor, including that they could try to show that various corporate defendants created a public nuisance.

Opioid addiction claimed roughly 400,000 lives in the United States from 1999 to 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The companies had argued that Judge Polster tipped his hand beginning as early as January 2018 when the litigation that they would have to foot the bill for the epidemic.

They have also said the potential costs could be enormous, saying the plaintiffs in the Ohio case were seeking $8 billion in cash to cover fallout.

Judge Polster, however, said the main point of his public comments was to show that the judiciary was "up to the task" of addressing the crisis, whether through fairly-negotiated settlements or fairly-fought litigation.

"The burden to sustain a motion to disqualify a judge is exceedingly high," he added, "and the moving defendants have not met it."

Purdue Pharma LP, the maker of Oxycontin and one of the main defendants, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Sept. 15 after reaching an agreement to settle claims in the litigation and by 24 U.S. states.




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