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Allegheny County Sues Over Landmark Opioid Settlement

Keith Srakocic
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. sued Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Thursday, July 29, over a $26 billion national opioid settlement. In a complaint filed with the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, Zappala called the deal "inadequate."

Allegheny County joined Philadelphia Thursday in suing Pennsylvania’s attorney general over a proposed $26 billion national opioid settlement. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said the deal doesn’t go far enough to confront a crisis that has killed about 3,400 people in Allegheny County in the last five-and-a-half years.

“On first blush [the total settlement amount] may seem to be a large number,” Zappala said in a complaint filed with the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. But he added, “Even in a best-case scenario, it amounts to maybe a few million per year for Allegheny County.”

Zappala suggested that the county stands to gain a larger payout from a lawsuit he brought in February that involves pharmaceutical firms involved in the national settlement.

But that idea threatens to “rob Allegheny County residents of their fair share of a billion dollars to fight the opioid epidemic,” said Molly Stieber, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. The attorney general's office estimates that Pennsylvania and its local governments could get a total of $1 billion under the new $26 billion agreement.

Zappala’s “plan is to start years of risky, drawn-out litigation that would deny western Pennsylvanians the treatment options they need now, with no realistic plan for success," Stieber added. "Meanwhile, the proposed settlement could provide an influx of $232 million to Pennsylvanians by next year.”

The $26 billion opioid deal is the second-largest cash settlement in U.S. history, though it is well behind the $246 billion tobacco settlement in 1998. The money would primarily fund drug treatment, social services, and other initiatives aimed at addressing the opioid epidemic. Pharmaceutical companies would make 18 annual payments.

States have 30 days to sign on, while municipalities such as Allegheny County have 120 days. If there’s not enough interest, the companies could pay significantly less or abandon the deal altogether. Like Philadelphia, Washington state and West Virginia have already rejected the settlement.

Local governments across the country have, like Zappala, brought their own lawsuits against prescription opioid manufacturers and distributors.

The companies in the national settlement include the “Big 3” drug distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, McKesson, as well as drugmaker Johnson & Johnson. Zappala’s Thursday filing against the attorney general also names the Big 3 as defendants. A spokesperson for the district attorney did not immediately respond to an email asking why Johnson & Johnson was not included.

In the Thursday complaint, Zappala accuses Shapiro of improperly trying to end the county’s suit against pharmaceutical companies. Accepting the settlement terms would require the district attorney to drop his lawsuit.

But Zappala objected to that arrangement, saying that his office has “a direct and substantial interest in ensuring that its case is not rendered moot or otherwise usurped, particularly when the relief sought by the attorney general is … inadequate.”

The complaint noted that two counties in Ohio have negotiated a $325 million settlement with opioid suppliers, and that in 2019 a judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay the state of Oklahoma $465 million.

But Stieber, of the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office, countered that the Oklahoma case remains under appeal. Stieber also cited an analysis by chief negotiators for the attorney general that estimates that the national settlement would pay $10 more per capita than the 2019 Ohio deal that Zappala cited.

Cuyahoga County, Ohio, whose population is similar to Allegheny County’s, was part of the 2019 settlement. It received $84 million, or $68 per resident, from the four companies involved in the national settlement, Stieber said. Under the new deal, those companies would pay Pennsylvania and its local governments at a rate of $78 per person, according to Stieber.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at
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