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Arguments began this week in a West Virginia federal court in what will likely be a groundbreaking trial for those affected by the opioid epidemic. The City of Huntington and Cabell County have pushed forward their claims against the nation's three largest drug distributors - McKesson Corp., AmerisourceBergen Corp., and Cardinal Health - despite settlements in thousands of other related lawsuits.
This case marks the first time a legal theory put forward by more than 3,000 other lawsuits will reach the trial stage: That drug wholesalers created a public nuisance by allowing prescription opioids to flow into communities unchecked.
The three distributors were also defendants in a case that nearly went to trial in Ohio in 2019, but a last-minute $260 million settlement ended proceedings the night before arguments would have begun.
West Virginia was hit hard by the opioid crisis, and the city of Huntington especially so. According to the Centers for Disease Control, West Virginia has the highest death rates due to drug overdose in the country.
In 2016, 10% of babies born in Huntington were dependent on opioids. And the state is now dealing with a huge spike in cases of HIV related to intravenous drug use.
The lawsuit alleges that manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioids "showered the state of West Virginia" with 1.1 billion hydrocodone and oxycodone pills between 2006 and 2014. They argue that companies involved in the opioid supply chain caused the current crisis by:
The companies argue that they are too far removed from the actual use (and misuse) of opioids to be held accountable. AmerisourceBergen says it followed quotas set by the Drug Enforcement Administration, and that the chain of events that occur after a doctor prescribes a drug does not involve them.
The bench trial (a proceeding with only a judge instead of a jury) is playing out before U.S. District Judge David A. Faber. Thus far, Judge Faber has denied several motions for summary judgment by the defendant drug distributors.
The three companies, along with drug manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, offered up $26 billion to settle all of the opioid lawsuits across the country.
But lawyers for Huntington and Cabell County say the 1% that would go to West Virginia is nowhere near enough. Plus, public filings show all four companies plan to write off any payouts as operating losses - meaning they could slash millions from their corporate income taxes.
Cabell County and Huntington are seeking more than $1 billion in damages.