Two Ohio counties have settled with drug companies in a landmark case over responsibility for the opioid epidemic. The settlement came just hours before the trial was scheduled to begin yesterday in Cleveland.
Under the agreement, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, McKesson Corp. and Teva Pharmaceuticals will pay $260 million to Cuyahoga and Summit Counties to help those communities battle the drug crisis.
The settlement did not include any admission of wrongdoing by the drug companies, but Joseph Rice, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said payments of over $323 million, including previous settlements, constitute “a pretty good admission.”
The agreement does not settle the remaining suits by some 2,400 communities, counties and Native American tribes against the drug manufacturers and distributors. Huntington Mayor Steve Williams is among those pushing for justice.
“I want our day in court,” Williams said. “People in Huntington and West Virginia have been asking the question ‘how has this happened in our city and our state.’ I want the opportunity to be in court so those sons of guns have to reveal just what happened.”
It’s uncertain whether that will happen.
The settlement with the two Ohio counties may serve as a template for agreements in the rest of the cases. “The agreement also buys the companies time to try to fashion a more wide-ranging settlement with other governments,” the Washington Post reported.
West Virginia has been ravaged by the opioid epidemic. Drug companies and wholesalers dumped millions of pills here. Doctors overprescribed and pill mills popped up like dandelions.
As attorney Paul Farrell, co-lead plaintiffs’ attorney, famously asked an official with the Drug Enforcement Administration, “Is there any basis that you can make up in reality or otherwise where a town of 400 people (Kermit, WV) have a medical need for five million pills of opium in a span of 24 months?”
The answer from the official was, as you might expect, that there is not.
So an accounting for this ongoing tragedy is essential. Cuyahoga and Summit Counties are getting theirs. An Oklahoma judge ruled earlier this year that Johnson & Johnson must pay that state $572 million for the damage done there by the opioid crisis.
The Cabell-Huntington case is next up. Mayor Williams, who has witnessed first-hand what the pill dumping can do to a community, desperately wants a trial to get the drug companies on the record.
But a trial comes with a risk of losing and getting nothing, or less than what the community could have gotten with a settlement. That will have to be sorted out by the lawyers, the drug companies and the judge.
It is evident, however, that West Virginia has been severely damaged by the opioid crisis. It’s going to take a long time and a lot of resources to clean up this mess. It’s also likely that some communities have been harmed in ways that can never be accurately measured or repaired, no matter how much money the companies have to pay.