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Why This Lawyer Says He's Skeptical About A Global Settlement In Opioid Litigation

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The legal battle over the opioid epidemic is far from over. Yes, two counties in Ohio settled with drug companies this week, but more than 2,000 states, counties, cities and tribes across the country were hoping for a global settlement. That deal did not happen, in part because of disagreements over how settlement money would be distributed - disagreements between state attorneys general and lawyers like Paul Farrell, who represents about 700 cities and towns.

PAUL FARRELL: I don't think that the communities that I represent are interested in replicating the tobacco settlement model, where the monies got sent to the state's attorney general, and then those monies got sent to the general treasury. And then the legislatures used it to fill gaps in their budgets. So one of the primary reasons so many counties and cities decided to take action was so that they could find a community solution to their community problem.

CHANG: You know, the several state attorneys general who were pushing that deal say that the funds would be distributed fairly among the states, the counties, the cities. Do you not trust them?

FARRELL: Well, it's not that I need to trust them. They've outlined how they believe the money should be distributed amongst the 50 states. And not surprisingly, Texas decided that they wanted the most amount of money. So when you break it down, my home state, West Virginia, which has disproportionately been impacted, was allocated 0.00015% of any overall settlement amount. And that's just a nonstarter.

CHANG: Fascinating - so ideally, what would the best kind of global settlement look like from the perspective of your clients? What shape should that take?

FARRELL: Well, I think it's a matter of perspective. We've attempted to address this nationally through our federal government and failed. We've attempted to address it on a statewide basis. And so far, we've failed. And so now I'm focusing on making it community by community, if necessary. So unless there's some priority of those communities that have been most disproportionately impacted, I'm not going to be in favor for spreading the money based on population.

CHANG: So the way I understand it, you're playing two roles here. You're not only trying to shepherd negotiations for a massive global settlement; you're also worried about these individual clients that you represent. Isn't there a conflict of interest there? I mean, on one hand, you're playing a central role in trying to negotiate this bigger settlement. But you also have to advocate more narrowly for these individual municipalities you represent.

FARRELL: Yes, absolutely. What we're attempting to do is we're attempting to provide options for each community. So if we were to take each and every one of the communities and stack them up for trial after trial, it looks like we're on par for about $300 billion and bankrupt a number of companies. So there is a reality that eventually - that the defendants will have to offer a national settlement.

CHANG: Right.

FARRELL: And we're trying to negotiate the best and most that we can.

CHANG: But what happens when the priorities in those negotiations for a bigger settlement clash with the priorities of your clients?

FARRELL: None of the communities have to take the settlement offer, and they can all choose to go to trial.

CHANG: Right, but perhaps stand the risk that there may not be as much money left over if a global settlement is reached before the trial ends.

FARRELL: That's true.

CHANG: If there is a settlement for you and your clients or if you end up winning at trial - if there is, indeed, a trial - how much do you stand to personally make out of all of this opioid litigation? I'm just curious.

FARRELL: I have no idea.

CHANG: OK. But just so I understand the mathematics, let's say that there is a global settlement of around, say, $50 billion. That's the figure that's been floated around so far. You would be able to get how much of that?

FARRELL: I can't tell you. There's no way to speculate as to that number. But as it stands right now, there's no money on the table, so there's no discussion of attorney fees.

CHANG: Paul Farrell is a lawyer representing hundreds of municipalities in the ongoing litigation against opioid manufacturers, distributors and retailers.

Thank you very much for joining us.

FARRELL: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF JANELLE MONAE SONG, "PYNK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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