More than $2 billion of the $26 billion agreement would not go to states and localities at all. It would be used to pay fees and costs for the private lawyers representing thousands of counties and municipalities, as well as some states, in the opioid litigation. Although many states are represented by their own salaried lawyers, others needed to rely on outside counsel to mount such a costly, all-consuming litigation, as did most cities and counties.
While states are deciding whether to sign on, trials against the companies will continue, including one in California state court against Johnson & Johnson and a local West Virginia trial in federal court against the distributors. At least half a dozen other trials are scheduled to begin in the fall and early winter.
The plaintiffs’ executive committee, who negotiated on behalf of local governments, said that while Wednesday’s announcement was a milestone moment, “Reaching agreement is just step one.”
Joe Rice, a lead negotiator on the committee, noted that some states would have to pass laws locking in how the opioid settlement money would be used and precluding future litigation.
But he emphasized that from the outset of the negotiation, the payments had been intended to be used almost exclusively to address the opioid epidemic. Mr. Rice, who also helped negotiate the Big Tobacco settlements more than 20 years ago, acknowledged that much of that money had ultimately been diverted to balance state budgets rather than directed to the treatment of smoking-related problems.
The new agreement, he said, had much tougher guard rails to ensure that funds went to prevention, treatment, medicines, education and other opioid-related problems.
Most states are likely to work up their own disbursement plans with their local governments. Ohio, North Carolina, Arizona, Texas, Florida and others have already brokered internal formulas. Last month, the New York legislature passed bills to ensure that all funds from the opioid litigation settlement would go into a “locked box,” to be used only to address the crisis.