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Summit County Leaders Prepare for Opioid Trial

a photo of Greta Johnson
Greta Johnson is assistant chief of staff for Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro. She is also a lawyer.

Pharmaceutical maker Johnson & Johnson recently announced a settlement in a lawsuit Summit County filed over the opioid epidemic. For more on this development and the county's legal action, WKSU's Jennifer Conn talked with Greta Johnson, assistance chief of staff for Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro and an attorney.  She explained where things stand, but could not specify the defendants in the suit by name because the case is ongoing.

Greta, can you take us back to the beginning of this legal dispute? How did the county come to a decision to file suit? And who did you file against?
Our suit was filed in December of 2017, and the decision to file that lawsuit really was the culmination of our entire community beginning to understand who was at the root cause of this epidemic. And that was, quite frankly, the pharmaceutical industry. And so once our community came to that understanding, that's when we engaged counsel. And the initial lawsuit, we sued 11 manufacturers and three distributors. Pharmacies have been added into the lawsuit. But the original case that we brought, we filed here in Summit County Common Pleas Court, and it was almost immediately removed from state court into federal court where it was joined into the multi-district litigation. So that case that has been pending now for almost two years, we are in the mix with over 2,000 plaintiffs who are suing various manufacturers, defendants and pharmacies but all alleging many of the same claims, which is why they've all been brought together in one suit.
Summit County and Cuyahoga County were sort of plucked out of that mix. And we are what's called the bellwether plaintiffs. As such, we were the ones who were set for trial and have been working feverishly toward that date now, October 21.

What can you say about the settlement that's been reported?
So we have been engaging in settlement discussions with multiple defendants. The judge in this case, [U.S. District] Judge [Dan] Polster made it very clear that he did not intend for this lawsuit to have more than six defendants when it came time for trial. We are whittling our way down to the six defendants through some settlements, through some severing and through just sort of a selective process of identifying what will make most sense to a jury.

But there have been previous settlements with other pharmaceutical companies haven't there?
There have been. The problem that we have right now is that we are still unsure of what the [U.S. Court of Appeals for the] Sixth Circuit is going to do with Attorney General [Dave] Yost's petition for a writ. The attorney general has asked the federal appellate court to intervene, to essentially say that Summit County and Cuyahoga County did not have any standing to bring this case. And that the state of Ohio is the only one in the position to bring a lawsuit against these manufacturers and distributors.

How has the Attorney General's action impacted the trial?
He has essentially said that not only do we not have the right to bring this case, but that essentially home rule doesn't apply. His petition for a writ in the Sixth Circuit, essentially, could halt our trial and quite frankly, the settlement dollars that we have achieved, now just sit in limbo, because until that decision is made and until the attorney general steps away from these claims, we can't help people with that. And that is shameful. What he has done has literally put himself in between us and being able to help the people we serve. 

How great has the cost been for the county from the opioid epidemic?
Incredibly great. The cost from indigent defense fees to needing to bring the mobile morgue up to our medical examiner's office; the cost of increased treatment options being needed; the cost of fentanyl test strips and needle exchanges and everything that's come as a result of this. That is the crux of this lawsuit. What we're trying to focus on now is the abatement plan into the future. How do we make sure that Summit County is better than it was when this began.

What do you hope to see Summit County get when all this legal maneuvering is said and done? 
I want to see Summit County get better. We are still in an emergency situation. What I really want for Summit County is for the global understanding that this is a medical condition that we need to treat like we treat cancer, that people look at this as an opportunity to grow and an opportunity to make our community even better than before. I'm very hopeful that when all of the dust settles and the trial is over, that people come to the table, understanding that all we want to do is the best that we can for the most people we can in the most ways that we can.