HOUSTON – Attorney Mikal Watts believes going to trial can solve the opioid crisis and that more people can be helped sooner by trying the biggest lawsuits in Texas first.
Of course, not everyone reasons like Watts, including some of the attorneys representing the defendant manufacturers of opioids, who suspect trial lawyers are eyeballing a large county in hopes of landing a large verdict right of the bat.
Dozens of Texas counties and cities, including the state itself, have filed opioid lawsuits asserting companies, like Purdue Pharma for example, had knowledge of the dangers of opioids but concealed the information for profit.
Last summer, the suits were ushered into a multidistrict litigation court in Harris County and assigned to Judge Robert Schaffer of the 152nd District Court.
On June 14, a status conference was held in the MDL court, during which attorneys sorted through a variety of issues, such as the venue of Texas’ first opioid bellwether trial.
Aside from Watts, a number of other high profile trial lawyers were on hand for the meeting, including Mike Gallagher, who represents numerous Texas counties, and Jeffrey Simon, a partner at Simon Greenstone in Dallas.
Simon presented Judge Schaffer with a shortlist of six cases plaintiff’s attorneys would like to see go first, with Dallas County at the top.
Simon told the judge they’d like the Harris County suit, which was removed to federal court, to also be considered if the case is remanded back to the state MDL.
Agreeing with Simon, Watts told the judge it would be a “waste of court resources to select a county” with only 8,000 people.
“The sooner we can get information, the sooner we can solve the opioid crisis,” Watts said when Judge Schaffer asked why it mattered what case went first.
Watts believes trying the Dallas County suit would provide the most information because it’s the second largest county in the state.
Perhaps suspecting the attorneys may be chasing a big judgment, Noelle Reed, an attorney representing Purdue, said she wasn’t sure what Watts meant by “more information” and reminded the attorneys present that civil litigation is not a process to solve the opioid crisis but rather a process to obtain damages.
A few minutes later, Watts brushed off Reed’s assumption about damages and said that if a case based on population is selected first, then it “turns out you helped the most people the soonest.”
Opioid attorneys also argued that larger counties have the most geographical and population diversity – an argument Judge Schaffer found convincing.
Following the discussion, Judge Schaffer told the attorneys that the plaintiffs would select the first case and the defendants the second, saying that he feels “like it’s absolutely necessary” to get the cases moving, asking them to provide possible trial dates.
Watts, who received a slew of bemused reactions when he told the court that he was ready to try a case right now, suggested sometime in the spring of 2020.
Much to the judge’s disaproval, Stephen McConnico, an attorney for Johnson & Johnson, told him 24 months from now.
Reed told the court the most populated counties will have the most discovery and at least 18 months would be needed to prepare.
Judge Schaffer tentatively set the first trial date for October 2020 – 15 months from now – and said he would plug in a case during the next status conference, which is slated for July 26.
Reed is an attorney for the Houston law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
McConnico is a partner at the Austin law firm Scott Douglass & McConnico.
Cause No. 2018-63587