CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The lawyer representing the town of Richwood in their suit against a number of drug wholesalers believes this is just the beginning of legal action by West Virginia municipalities.
“We intend to sue every bad actor–either pharmacist or physician,” Charleston-based attorney Rusty Webb said. “And when I say that, I don’t mean I’m going to sue Rite Aid or CVS. I’m going to sue a local pharmacy that has been put out of business or a doctor who has lost their license.”
In addition to representing Richwood, Webb has already agreed to represent two municipalities Huntington and Logan.
(Correction: This article original stated Rusty Webb represented Webster County. The Chafin Law Firm will be representing Webster County in their suit)
“They have significant costs associated with the drug addiction problem,” Webb said. “That being, the enforcement, prosecution, and treatment and first responders that the County Commissions had to pay out of their budget.”
Other similar suits have already been filed in Mingo and McDowell County, both considered High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA). On January 11, MetroNews reported that the Mercer County Commission was also considering a suit. Rusty Webb said he is fielding calls from County Commission’s and municipalities on a daily basis–and will likely meet with the Harrison County Commission sometime in the near future.
“There will ultimately be a very large team of lawyers who will join together for a common cause,” he said. “We will all be one big law firm.”
Of his four current clients, Webb said only the City of Huntington has officially filed in Cabell County Circuit Court. He expects his chief argument to be the same though: drug wholesalers flooding West Virginia with prescription pain killers directly led to the modern opioid crisis.
“The White House issued a report in 2016 that basically says that,” he said. “It says that there is a direct correlation between the opioid addiction and the emerging heroin addiction.”
Webster County, in particular, has struggled with the increased financial costs associated with law enforcement. Mixed with a downturn in coal severance taxes and other revenues, Webster County only has enough money to pay for the Constitutionally-guaranteed services required.
“Little Webster County, with a relatively small population, has millions of dollars in regional jail fees that they are simply having trouble paying,” Webb said.
“By and large, it appears as though that the only reason there is a spike in crime in West Virginia is a result of drug addiction,” he said.
While Webster County is an extreme case, Webb said there are similar stories around the state.
“They are just incarcerating people left and right for, primarily, stealing or breaking into pharmacies or trying to raise the money to feed their drug addictions,” he said.
“Now, that could be meth, that could be heroin, that could be painkillers. But, I don’t think anybody is going to challenge that that is clearly the reason for the spike in regional jail costs.”
While Webb concedes that Richwood is more on the periphery than some of his other clients, he said Richwood’s proximity to Webster County and it’s county seat, Webster Springs, lead him to believe the town has a strong case.
“And, you know, Nicholas [County] is right beside of Webster [County],” he said. “Richwood is the next town over from Webster. It’s not unrealistic to believe that all the distributions that were going on in Webster permeated over into Richwood and Nicholas County.”
Webb said his sights are primarily set on three wholesalers: Amerisource, Cardinal Health, and McKesson Corporation.
“What I think will ultimately happen is, I think it will end up in front of what’s called the Mass Tort Panel that the Supreme Court has created just for this reason,” Webb said.
The Mass Tort Panel is comprised of a five-judge panel for adjudication and a three-judge panel for settlement.
“I believe that, ultimately, it will be consolidated into one large lawsuit when it gets to the Mass Tort Panel,” Webb said.
“A lot of the information is sealed in the file in Boone County,” he said. “The Judge sealed it and made it only available to the lawyers. My guess is we are going to ask for that same information.”
Webb estimated that up to 55 counties and/or municipalities could file individual suits when all is said and done.