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West Virginia Community Flooded With Opioids Takes Big Pharma to Court in Landmark Trial

"After facing this crisis head on for far too long, our day in court is finally here," said the mayor of Huntington, W.V.

Two partially used syringes and needles are seen as three people walk along rail tracks on October 2, 2019 in Huntington, W.V. (Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Residents of Cabell County and the city of Huntington, West Virginia will be among the witnesses called at a landmark federal trial regarding the opioid crisis beginning Monday.

Legal experts and justice advocates believe the case, which is being heard in the U.S. District Court in the state's Southern District, could be a seminal moment for the nation's opioid epidemic, which has killed more than 400,000 people in the U.S. in the past two decades.

The communities are considered ground zero of the opioid crisis, with more than 81 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills prescribed in Cabell County between 2006 and 2014—enough for every resident to have 94 of the highly addictive pills each year.

Local authorities want to hold three companies—AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson—accountable for failing to report—and continuing to fill—suspiciously large orders of the drugs as the crisis worsened, leading Cabell County to report a higher overdose rate at the height of the crisis than West Virginia as a whole, which reported a rate of 21.7 in 2017.

"We are grateful to be able to present our case that will demonstrate the role these companies played in fueling the public health crisis our city has battled for years and years."
—Steve Williams, mayor of Huntington, W.V.

Currently, about 5% of babies born in West Virginia are born to mothers who use opioids, which can lead to life-long health problems. The national rate is less than 1%. 

"After facing this crisis head on for far too long, our day in court is finally here," Huntington Mayor Steve Williams, who is expected to testify in the case, told Mountain State Spotlight last week.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs, which also include thousands of other local governments that have signed on, will argue that the companies created a "public nuisance" by flooding local communities with opioids. They're demanding that the corporations, which shared half the opioid painkiller market between 2006 and 2014, pay $500 million to help the area recover from the epidemic.

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"They broke it. So they need to fix it," Paul Farrell, Jr., a local lawyer who helped craft the "public nuisance" strategy and is representing the lead plaintiffs, said of the drug companies in 2019. "I want them to stop killing people. I want mothers to stop giving birth to babies addicted to opium. I want my friends and my friends’ children to stop overdosing. I want to stop going to funerals."

The companies have argued that they "do not control the supply of prescription opioids made available to patients in Cabell/Huntington and are not responsible for second-guessing the good-faith prescribing decisions of doctors in Cabell/Huntington." 

AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson reached a settlement with the state of West Virginia for $73 million between 2017 and 2019, and along with Johnson & Johnson, have offered $26 billion to settle all opioid-related cases across the country.

County and city authorities are insisting on taking the corporations to court, however, because only 1% of the money offered would go to West Virginia. 

The companies must "help restore these communities,” Farrell and his partner in the case, Anne McGinness Kearse, told the Wall Street Journal.

Along with community members personally affected by the epidemic, the plaintiffs are expected to call local leaders and experts on the opioid crisis as witnesses. 

"We are just days away from a landmark moment for Huntington where we will demand accountability from the 'Big Three' drug distributors," Williams told Mountain State Spotlight on Saturday. "We are grateful to be able to present our case that will demonstrate the role these companies played in fueling the public health crisis our city has battled for years and years." 

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