Over half a million Americans have died because of the opioid epidemic since 1999. West Virginia is arguably “ground zero” of the narcotic painkiller addiction health crisis. The city of Huntington is the seat of Cabell County, which has a total population of 96,000, as of the 2010 census. If West Virginia is ground zero, Cabell County is epicenter of the opioid epidemic.
TheGuardian.com reports that between 2006 to 2014, opioid manufacturers delivered 1.1 billion prescription opioid pills across the state, including the tiny town of Kermit (population: 350), which saw 9 million pills be delivered to a single pharmacy.
Due to the ubiquity of prescription narcotic pain pills, West Virginia witnessed the nation’s highest opioid lethal overdose rate in the country.
That set the scene for a trial that was several years in the making and that began today between the state and a few of the biggest opioid manufacturers: McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health.
Per TheGuardian.com, the lawsuit claims the companies put profit before lives by working in concert with “pill mill” doctors and pharmacists who were little better than drug dealers in supplying opioids to anyone who paid, in breach of laws requiring distributors to halt and report suspicious sales.
The trial, which is expected to last several weeks, is the first in a series of bellwether cases. Bellwether cases help establish the future tone for similar cases. This is a bench trial, which means that a judge alone will decide the outcome; no jury will be present. The outcome of the trial will establish whether opioid makers, distributors and pharmacy chains are liable for the epidemic. The city of Huntington and Cabell County are seeking over $1 billion in damages.
According to West Virginia news site, WSAZ, opening arguments began at 9:30 a.m., and several city and county leaders such as the mayor, police chief and fire chief of Huntington and the Cabell County Sherrif, are expected to testify throughout the proceedings.
If the judge, who rejected the companies’ attempt to have the trial dismissed last month, finds the drug makers complicit, the defendants will likely have to pay out billions of dollars. Hundreds of municipalities and counties as well as Native American tribes have filed claims against opioid drug entities.
The reason that thus far, only three opioid cases have reached trial, including in West Virginia yesterday is that opioid drug makers have reached settlement deals with states and municipalities.
For instance, in 2019, McKesson and AmerisourceBergenm and two other opioid manufacturers settled a lawsuit for $260 million in Ohio moments before the trial was set to begin. The Ohio settlement, Guardian.com suggests, threatened “to expose what the distributors knew about illegal sales of the opioids they were delivering to fill prescriptions written by doctors and dispensed by pharmacists who have since been imprisoned.”
West Virginia previously reached a $37 million settlement with McKesson in 2019; a $20 million settlement with Cardinal Health, and a $16 million settlement with AmerisourceBergen in 2017, WSAZ reports.
That same year, the first opioid case to reach trial resulted in a $465 million win for the state of Oklahoma in a judgement against Johnson & Johnson. (J&J has appealed the decision.)
The second opioid suit that reached trial, which occurred just last month, pitted three heavily-populated counties in California and the city of Oakland, who are collectively seeking $50 billion in damages from opioid makers and distributors.
The large opioid manufacturers have also been hit with steep fines. For example, McKesson paid a then-record $150 million fine in 2017.
Some of the defendants in the trial are seeking to prevent West Virginia’s former chief health officer, Dr Rahul Gupta, from testifying as an expert witness. Gupta would ostensibly weigh in on “whether the pharmaceutical industry’s push to sell opioids led to overdose deaths, and whether addiction to prescription opioids drew people into using illegal narcotics such heroin and fentanyl,” says Guardian.com, which adds that illegal opioids are not the main cause of overdoses.
Gupta, the defendants hope, will be barred from speaking about the epidemic’s impact on social issues such as the number of children taken into foster care.
Republican Congressman, David McKinley, accused CEOs of the four opioid giant of “feeding the epidemic by riding roughshod over the law,” per Guardian.com, saying, “None of you was complying with state law,” said McKinley, who added, “And yet you say, ‘We weren’t responsible.’ I think you were very much responsible.”
Considering that doctors and pharmacists were jailed for playing a role in the opioid epidemic, McKinley asked why drug distributor executives should not be jailed too.
“I just want you to feel shame about your roles, respectively, in all of this,” he said, per Guardian.com.