The new ground zero in the fight against the opioid addiction crisis in this country is the Cleveland courtroom of Judge Dan Polster of the Northern District of Ohio. The veteran judge is charged with resolving more than 400 federal lawsuits over the opioid crisis and he’s daring to be different in how he handles the cases.
Normally, massive lawsuits can take years, with mountains of evidence and depositions, before there is finally a verdict or settlement that assess blame and awards damages. However, Judge Polster does not want to go that route.
“I don’t think anyone in the country is interested in a whole lot of finger-pointing at this point, and I’m not either,” he said during the initial hearing in the case back in January. “My objective is to do something meaningful to abate this crisis, and do it in 2018.”
The New York Times, in a profile of Judge Polster’s approach, said some of the lawyers involved are privately critical, contending the judge is “grandstanding” or perhaps even “over his head.”
But Polster appears undeterred. He told the 170 lawyers, plaintiffs and defendants in his courtroom, “With all these smart people here and their clients, I’m confident we can do something to dramatically reduce the number of opioids that are being disseminated, manufactured and distributed.”
West Virginia is the among the states hardest hit by the opioid crisis. Gazette-Mail Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eric Eyre has documented how small communities have been flooded with the powerful and highly addictive pain killers.
Eyre famously reported how one pharmacy in the Mingo County town of Kermit, with a population of under 400 people, distributed nearly nine million hydrocodone pills over two years. A congressional panel reported in January that drug companies shipped nearly 21 million pain pills to two pharmacies in the Mingo County town of Williamson over ten years.
The flood of pills has triggered an epidemic of addiction in West Virginia. On average, two people die in the state every day from overdoses and dozens more have to be revived by first responders.
Adam Zimmerman, professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, told the Times that Judge Polster’s approach to the massive opioid litigation is novel. “We say we want judges to be umpires, but when there’s a large social problem, judges can be umpires for only so long before they decide it has to be solved.”
What’s unclear, however, is how Polster hopes to solve the problem. He gave an outline during the January hearing, saying his goals included reducing the manufacturing and distribution of opioids, ensuring that the pills “go to the right people and no one else,” and to “get some amount of money to government agencies for treatment.”
But how are those goals accomplished and what role should each of the stakeholders play? That’s what Judge Polster has charged the litigants with figuring out, and quickly. It is an almost unimaginable challenge, but Polster says he’s up for it.
“I won’t fault myself for attempting this,” he told the Times. We will find out soon enough whether Judge Polster has embarked on a meaningful pathway toward a solution to the opioid crisis or whether his controversial approach is just a fool’s errand.