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Appeals court won't disqualify judge in opioid cases

Posted On: Oct. 10, 2019 2:34 PM CST


(Reuters) — A U.S. federal appeals court on Thursday cleared the way for a landmark trial over the nation's opioid crisis, rejecting a bid by eight drug sellers to disqualify the judge, and a request by Ohio and other U.S. states to delay the Oct. 21 trial.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati said U.S. District Judge Dan Polster, who oversees the litigation, had not created an appearance of bias against the drug industry through his rulings, public statements and efforts to encourage settlements.

Companies that sought Judge Polster's recusal included 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.

The appeals court also said Ohio failed to show that letting the trial go forward would undermine its right to litigate on its own. Thirteen other states and Washington, D.C., joined Ohio's effort to delay the trial.

AmerisourceBergen declined to comment. Lawyers for the other drug sellers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, who sought the trial delay, said he was reviewing his legal options.

Judge Polster oversees more than 2,300 of the roughly 2,600 lawsuits brought by state, local and tribal governments, hospitals and other entities seeking to hold the drug industry responsible for the toll of opioid abuse.

Ohio's Cuyahoga and Summit counties are the only plaintiffs in the Oct. 21 trial in Cleveland, the first in a federal court related to the opioid crisis. Their lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Defendants in the trial include the four drug distributors, Walgreen and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd.

In letting Judge Polster stay on, the appeals court said judges in complex cases were encouraged to pursue settlements early, and Judge Polster's efforts did not suggest he had prejudged the case.

It also admonished the judge to be more careful talking to the press and in court, saying his comments might "in isolation" appear to reflect bias even though they did not warrant recusal.

"We do not encourage Judge Polster to continue these actions," especially in "a case of such enormous public interest and significance," the court said.

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.