COLUMBUS, Ohio — Gov. Mike DeWine said Wednesday that he’s optimistic following large-scale talks held earlier in the day at the Governor’s Mansion among representatives of the Ohio communities taking part in the opioid litigation.
More than 100 lawyers, elected officials and other representatives of the communities pursuing lawsuits against drug companies participated in the talks at the mansion in Bexley. Among those in attendance from Northeast Ohio were Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish, Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro and representatives from Lakewood and Parma.
The goal was to talk about how the state and its local governments could deal with any money received as part of any possible mass settlement. That includes how the money would be doled out and to ensure it’s used for expenses solely related to the opioid epidemic, which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths nationwide over the past two decades.
Another goal: easing tensions that had been brewing between lawyers representing the state and those representing local governments, according to participants.
“I think everybody was on the same page today. I really do,” DeWine said. “The devil’s always in the details, and I’m not saying we’re going to get an agreement. But I’m optimistic about it, and today’s session went about as well as anyone could have hoped for.”
The talks come two days after Cuyahoga and Summit counties reached a $260 million settlement with four major drug companies hours before the first federal trial was to commence in Cleveland. It also comes after a group of four attorneys general in other states proposed a deal worth more than $48 billion to resolve all the lawsuits several distributors and manufacturers face nationwide.
It was not yet clear whether that plan, which has drawn disapproval from Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost and local governments, would garner support here.
DeWine said he convened the talks to try to build consensus between the local governments and Yost. The attorney general, who has two opioid lawsuits pending in state courts, and attorneys for cities and counties, which mostly sued in federal court, have been at loggerheads in recent months about how any money obtained from drug companies should be controlled.
The different parties have plenty to iron out. Yost rankled DeWine and local governments by making moves to essentially take control of thousands of federal lawsuits overseen by a federal judge in Cleveland. The attorney general argued he could more fairly represent the interests of all Ohioans and that the settlements will be disproportionately doled out if local governments obtain them one by one.
The communities have viewed Yost’s actions as power grabs and have sought to retain control. DeWine has also criticized Yost for trying to take control of the case.
Still, it appears tensions had cooled a bit following the meeting.
In a statement Yost, a Republican, said of the talks: “Ohio’s position is stronger when we’re all on the same page and today we found out what the book looks like.”
Plaintiffs’ lawyers in attendance also expressed optimism, though noted such talks were very early.
Peter Weinberger, a lead lawyer for the cities and counties nationwide who also represents the city of Cleveland, said of the governor that “it was clear to me that he wanted to clear the air and find a way to be collaborative, and I think he accomplished that goal.”
Paul Farrell, also a lead lawyer for cities and counties, said “I think it was a great first step and it was long overdue.”
DeWine said all participants generally agreed that any settlement money should be earmarked to deal with the effects of the addiction crisis. He said the criticism from the settlement of tobacco company lawsuits in the 1990s, when billions were spent on general operations unrelated to smoking, was a major topic of discussion.
“What we want to do is take the money we’re able to get and spend it on the addiction problem,” DeWine said. “I don’t think anyone in the room that I could hear disagreed with that sentiment.”
Still, a number of issues need to be ironed out on how that would exactly look.
For example, Farrell – a West Virginia attorney who also represents Hamilton and Franklin counties, along with many other governments in Ohio – said his team feels that money obtained through a mass settlement should go into a fund overseen by a federal judge so he can ensure it is used to address opioid-related issues.
“It’s not a sticking point,” Farrell said. “It’s non-negotiable.”
The governor said another round of talks is scheduled for next week. While discussions continue, he said the local governments will continue litigating their cases in federal courts, while Yost will continue pursuing the state’s lawsuits in the state court system.
DeWine, a Republican, said he believes the more unified the Ohio governments are, the better settlement they may be able to negotiate.
“If we are united, we are in a much better position to go to a drug company and say, hey, you can settle with everybody in Ohio and take Ohio off your worry list,” he said.