Three Republican lawmakers have drafted legislation that would centralize authority over opioid lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies in the hands of the Ohio attorney general’s office. This could cause settlement money to be diverted away from local municipalities and prosecutors and into the hands of the state.
Currently, there are more than 100 lawsuits in place in Ohio related to the opioid crisis. The legislation would allow the attorney general to have the individual cases dismissed and then consolidate those lawsuits under the state. Although the opioid lawsuits are the main focus on the legislation, it would affect any local lawsuits that are a matter of statewide concern.
The legislation has support from Attorney General Dave Yost, but Gov. Mike DeWine indicated Wednesday that he would veto the legislation if it passes. The bill also has received pushback from some local municipalities and prosecutors, mostly because of how the settlement funds would be diverted.
In a statement, Yost argued that the opioid crisis would be better described as a statewide concern, rather than a series of individualized local concerns.
“Cities and counties that individually race to the courthouse, hoping for the luck of the draw and attempting to get any money that they can, are grasping for power,” Yost said. “This is a state claim with statewide impact and should not be divided amongst political subdivisions. The interests of the state of Ohio are much greater than the sum of the interests of its political subdivisions. A consolidated claim allows for broad representation in this fight for the greater good so that we can fairly deliver equitable relief to communities based on impact.”
Sen. John Eklund, R-Munson Township, told The Center Square that this legislation would codify the relationship between the state government and local governments on this issue and allow state resources to be used on statewide problems.
Eklund helped draft this legislation along with Rep. Bob Cupp, R-Lima, and Sen. Bill Coley, R-Liberty Township.
The state of Ohio has spent more than $1 billion to address the opioid crisis, some of which has been disseminated to local governments, Ecklund said. Because Ohio collectively addresses this issue with their tax dollars, he said that the state should collectively tackle the issue in legal efforts too.
Louis Tobin, the executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association disagreed with Yost and Eklund. He told The Center Square via email that the state should not dismiss ongoing lawsuits.
“This legislation is a bad idea,” Tobin said. “Setting aside possible constitutional problems, the first trial in Cleveland is scheduled to start in less than two months, the Sackler family is making settlement offers, and all of a sudden some people in Columbus are trying to hit the reset button so that they can control any settlement dollars. Any recovery belongs to the people in Ohio communities who are seeking redress for the destruction and devastation caused by the opioid manufacturers and distributors, and those communities are perfectly capable of deciding how to use the money from any recovery.”
Tobin said that this legislation would be an infringement on local control and could violate the local governments’ constitutional right to home rule.
Eklund said that he does not understand the constitutional or the practical concerns levied by the bill’s opponents. He said that home rule gives the localities the authority to enforce its own policies as long as it does not conflict with state law, which he does not believe this bill would violate.
These local governments may see a “pot of gold” at the end of the litigation process, which he said is motivating the localities to oppose the legislation, but that he wants to hear what concerns they bring up.
The draft legislation was sent to interested parties so that the attorney general’s office and the legislators could receive feedback.