The Town of Milton has opted to remain a party in a national class action lawsuit charging the manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioids for their role in the opioid epidemic.
Milton was initially declared a party of the suit when a federal judge in Ohio, where the nationwide suit is being argued, created a “negotiating class” including virtually every municipality in the U.S. by default.
Municipalities were given until Nov. 22 to decide whether they would opt out of the suit and, if the governments of those municipalities took no action, they would continue in the suit by default.
The Milton selectboard, after hearing testimony from the town’s public safety director Taylor Yeates, opted to take no action, leaving Milton as a party in the suit’s negotiating class.
Once involved, municipalities no longer need to file their own cases in court or hire their own attorneys in the already massive suit consolidated in a U.S. District Court in northern Ohio, now known as the National Prescription Opiate Litigation (NPOL).
“It’d be nice to recoup a lot of money, but I don’t think anyone on our staff wants to spend a whole lot of time managing this,” Yeates said. “We’ve already felt the effects of what’s happened... and we’re still responding to it.”
Plaintiffs in the NPOL charge 13 major companies, from prescription drug manufacturers like Purdue Pharmaceuticals to pharmacy chains like Walgreens, for aggressively marketing and downplaying the risks of addictive medications, leading to widespread addiction and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 200,000 prescription opioid-related deaths since 1999.
The CDC reported earlier this year that overdoses resulting from opioid abuse still kill around 130 people a day in the U.S., and estimates from the National Institutes of Health have placed the costs of the epidemic in the tens of billions of dollars.
An allocation map provided for the NPOL suggests that, should the suit result in a hypothetical award of $1 billion for the plaintiffs, Milton would receive $14,566 from the settlement.
Commentators have suggested a hypothetical settlement in NPOL could result in damages worth billions of dollars.
In opting into the suit, Milton joins neighboring Georgia, where the selectboard voted unanimously to endorse the town’s continued involvement in the suit.
“Why would we not want to?” Georgia selectperson Steve Lamos said ahead of the Georgia selectboard’s decision to join.
According to the NPOL allocation map, Georgia would see $3,922 in damages from a hypothetical $1 billion settlement.
In a letter informing towns of their default participation in NPOL’s negotiating class, Vermont Attorney General T. J. Donovan encouraged municipalities to remain involved, writing, “you can participate in the potential fruits of a settlement without having to file a lawsuit, hire attorneys, and most important incur additional attorneys’ fees and costs.”
“We believe Vermont cities and towns should seriously consider joining the Negotiation Class because it provides away to participate in recent efforts to settle on-going litigation against the manufacturers, distributors, and large pharmacies that created the opioid epidemic,” Donovan wrote.
NPOL is a separate lawsuit from those previously filed by Donovan in Chittenden County Superior Court between 2018 and 2019 over companies’ involvement in the opioid epidemic.
Those respective suits charged Purdue Pharmaceuticals and its owning Sackler family, and drug distributors Cardinal Health and McKesson, for similar damages cited in the wider NPOL.
The negotiating class was not the first incorporation of Vermont communities into the NPOL.
Both the City of St. Albans and the Town of Bennington had filed their own suits against opioid manufacturers before Ohio judge Dan Polster approved creating a negotiating class.
The Burlington-based Howard Center filed a suit this year alleging several providers and distributors, including those cited in NPOL, “negligently distributed and dispensed prescription opioid drugs.”
As members of the negotiating class, both Milton and Georgia have a right to vote on settlements proposed by any of the defendants in the NPOL case.
When any of the defendants offers to settle, members of the negotiating class have the right to decide through a supermajority’s vote – in this case 75 percent of voting towns – to accept a settlement.
Even before the creation of a negotiating class for NPOL, the suit was already the largest civil case in U.S. history, featuring thousands of plaintiffs from across states, counties, municipalities and Native American tribes.