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What judge's decision means for Gainesville, Hall County in lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors

Along with thousands of other cities and counties, Gainesville and Hall County will be making some decisions in the coming months regarding opioid lawsuit negotiations.

In the Northern District of Ohio, U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster certified a negotiating class Sept. 11 regarding the multi-district opioid litigation between local governments and drug manufacturers/distributors. Gainesville and Hall County are listed as members of the class and have the option to opt out, with the deadline being Nov. 22.

“From the outset of this (multi-district litigation), the Court has encouraged the parties to settle the case. Settlement is important in any case. Here, a settlement is especially important as it would expedite relief to communities so they can better address this devastating national health crisis,” the judge wrote

The law firms of Blasingame, Burch, Garrard & Ashley in Athens and Gainesville’s Hasty Pope LLC were hired when the city and county announced their litigation in March 2018.

“I can tell you it’s our recommendation to remain part of the negotiation class and to opt in, not opt out,” attorney Dustin Davies of Hasty Pope said.

Blasingame, Burch, Garrard and Ashley attorney Alex Hughes said the firm is representing dozens of counties.

No settlements have been proposed yet.

“Although things have been moving very quickly lately on many fronts ... Gainesville and Hall County have been engaged, and we look forward to reviewing with and discussing with the leadership the options available in order to achieve what is best for the city and county,” Davies wrote in an email.

OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma has embarked on a multibillion-dollar plan to settle thousands of lawsuits over the nation's deadly opioid crisis by transforming itself in bankruptcy court into a sort of hybrid between a business and a charity.

Whether the company can pull it off remains to be seen, especially with about half the states opposed to the deal.

The pharmaceutical giant filed for bankruptcy late Sunday, Sept. 15, step one in a plan it says would provide $10 billion to $12 billion to help reimburse state and local governments and clean up the damage done by powerful prescription painkillers and illegal opioids like heroin and fentanyl, which together have been blamed for more than 400,000 deaths in the U.S. in the past two decades.

The plan calls for turning Purdue into a "public benefit trust" that would continue selling opioids but hand its profits over to those who have sued the company. The Sackler family would give up ownership of Purdue and contribute at least $3 billion toward the settlement.

It will be up to a federal bankruptcy judge to decide whether to approve or reject the settlement or seek modifications.

Two dozen states plus key lawyers who represent many of the 2,000-plus local governments suing the Stamford, Connecticut-based company have signed on to the plan.

But other states have come out strongly against it, arguing it won't provide as much money as promised, that the Sacklers are getting off easy and that the family has extracted a fortune from the company and hidden it away in shell companies and Swiss bank accounts.

An allocation map was created online to give an idea of what counties and cities might receive under a settlement. The allocation was decided on three factors: the amount of opioids distributed within the county, the number of opioid deaths in the county and number of people suffering from opioid-use disorder.

Based on a hypothetical $1 billion settlement, the total allocation value for Hall County would be $339,984, with the initial distribution being shared between the county and all incorporated municipalities.

“The county and the cities within the county will have the opportunity to reach agreement on how the county-level allocation will be shared amongst them,” according to the multi-district litigation allocation website.

If no agreement is reached, the default intra-county allocation would give $265,572 to Hall County and $63,523 to Gainesville. The remainder would be split among Braselton, Buford, Clermont, Flowery Branch, Gillsville and Oakwood, according to the website.

Hughes said it is possible for these numbers to change.

“Assuming when the settlement gets pushed through the negotiation class, if the 2020 census numbers are out by then, the numbers that you’re seeing on the map can change. But essentially, assuming that a settlement is approved, 75% of that settlement will be allocated across the United States,” she said.

Gainesville city manager Bryan Lackey and Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Richard Higgins said last week there hasn’t been much discussion among city and county leaders as of yet.

After the opt-out deadline is reached, the class will “operate, if and only if, a national defendant wishes to negotiate with the class as a whole through the negotiation class mechanism,” according to the allocation website.

Any settlement would be voted on and require “approval by 75% of voting governments by number, by population and by allocation of settlement funds,” Davies said.

“There is strength in numbers. We’ve got about 2,000 counties and cities who have filed these lawsuits, so having a unified front is likely to generate the best settlement,” Davies said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.