Bellwether Drug Trial Under Way in West Virginia

A landmark civil trial, where Huntington and Cabell County are attempting to hold prescription drug distributors AmerisourceBergen Corp., McKesson Corp. and Cardinal Health Inc. responsible for the drug epidemic in West Virginia, has begun in federal court in Charleston.

For years now, West Virginia has had to deal with the drug crisis.

The cost has been incalculable—overdose deaths, families destroyed, increased crime, lost productivity—as thousands of West Virginians have struggled with the clutches of addiction.

The story of how West Virginia came to have the highest drug overdose rate in the country has its origins 15 years ago, when hydrocodone and oxycodone pills began flooding into the state.  People seeking relief from legitimate pain became addicted, while pills spilled over into the black market.

Eventually, the medical community and regulators tightened up significantly on opioids.  People with addictions then turned to heroin, meth and fentanyl, a drug 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

The state Department of Health and Human Resources recently reported that at least 1,275 West Virginians died from overdose in 2020, the most of any year and a 45 percent increase from 2019.

Many state and local leaders believe the drug companies that shipped all those pills to West Virginia bear responsibility, and that they should be forced to pay for the damage done. Paul Farrell, lawyer for Cabell County, simplified the argument during his opening statement Monday:

“We intend to prove the simple truth that the distributor defendants sold a mountain of opioid pills into our community, fueling the opioid epidemic,” Farrell said.  Their case is buoyed by sheer numbers—65 million opioid prescription pills were delivered between 2006 and 2012 to Cabell County, a county with roughly 95,000 people.

The drug companies will argue they were just filling orders and that all the prescriptions came from licensed doctors and were delivered to pharmacies.  Huntington and Cabell County will counter that the drug companies ignored red flags.

The trial may last for weeks, perhaps months.  It is a bench trial, meaning there is no jury; U.S. District Court Judge David Faber is presiding.  He will decide the outcome, and whether the drug companies should pay damages to Cabell County and Huntington.

There are more than 3,000 similar suits filed across the country, but this one is at the front of the line.  It will serve as a bellwether for the drug companies and the communities to determine whether to go to trial or try to reach a settlement.

For West Virginia, this trial is also, at last, a reckoning, a chance for our state to prove that our drug crisis was not entirely of our own making, that our addiction epidemic was knowingly fueled by drug wholesalers who obsessed over the benefit of the bottom line while willfully ignoring the human cost.

 





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