Home Health Federal judge rules hard-hit West Virginia community in opioid trial

Federal judge rules hard-hit West Virginia community in opioid trial

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In a blow to claims that drug companies have fueled the opioid crisis, a federal judge ruled Monday that the country’s three major drug distributors were not causing a public nuisance by shipping millions of addictive painkillers to a West Virginia community that had been one of the hardest hit. .

In a legal victory for AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson, Judge David A. Faber rejected the argument of Cabell County and its seat, Huntington, that the distributors were responsible for the consequences of an opioid flood, according to the judge’s order. in the US District Court in West Virginia.

The distributors have denied doing anything wrong and have said that the painkillers they shipped were prescribed by licensed doctors and dispensed by pharmacies. They argued that there was no way they could tell that those prescriptions were not legit and that one of the drugs may have been funneled to the black market.

Lawyers’ arguments for the distributors resonated with the judge, who ruled that the plaintiffs failed to prove that the companies’ conduct was unreasonable, a key element in establishing a public nuisance case. He felt that the behavior of the companies could not be related to the damage suffered by the communities. Finally, he ruled that the plaintiffs had failed to prepare a detailed response plan outlining how the communities would spend the money received if they were to gain the upper hand during the trial.

The increase in the number of pills going to West Virginia, he said, was due in part to “good faith releases” and the rise in product thresholds set by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“The opioid crisis has taken a significant toll on the citizens of Cabell County and the City of Huntington. And while there is a natural tendency to blame in such cases, they should not be decided on sympathy, but on the facts and the law,” Faber wrote in his statement. “Given the findings and conclusions of the court, the court is of the opinion that the judgment should be pronounced in favor of the defendants.”

Faber ultimately ruled that the nuisance laws had been misapplied in the case.

“The extension of the Nuisance Act to the marketing and sale of opioids is inconsistent with history and traditional notions of nuisance,” he wrote.

The decision comes nearly a year after the defendants’ lawyers and prosecutors rested their case in a lawsuit brought to court last summer. After the trial, the three distributors signed a $21 billion national deal with a vast majority of states, provinces and cities to resolve most of the lawsuits against them. Communities in West Virginia were not part of that deal. Lawyers involved in the case said they were surprised by the time it took Faber to give his decision.

Prosecutors’ attorneys said they are considering an appeal.

“We are deeply disappointed personally and for the citizens of Cabell County and the City of Huntington,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys said in a statement. responsible for creating and overseeing the infrastructure that flooded West Virginia with opioids.”

Representatives of the pharmaceutical companies applauded Faber’s statement.

“We remain deeply concerned about the impact the opioid crisis is having on families and communities across our country,” McKesson said in a statement. “McKesson maintains – and continuously improves – strong programs designed to detect and prevent opioid abuse within the pharmaceutical supply chain. We only distribute controlled substances, including opioids, to DEA-registered and state-approved pharmacies.”

“We welcome the Court’s ruling, which recognizes what we have demonstrated in court, which is that we do not manufacture, market or prescribe prescription drugs, but instead only provide a safe channel to sell all kinds of drugs from manufacturers to supply our thousands of hospitals and hospitals. pharmacy customers who dispense them to their patients based on prescriptions ordered by a physician,” Cardinal Health said in a statement.

AmerisourceBergen said in a statement, “We are pleased with the court’s decision, which dispelled the notion that the distribution of FDA-approved drugs to licensed and registered healthcare providers in Cabell County and the City of Huntington was a public nuisance.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic began, the West Virginia trial would set a benchmark for new legal strategy in the sprawling national lawsuits against companies, including drug manufacturers and pharmacies. Huntington and Cabell County attorneys argued that the companies shipped drugs without regard to red flags that pills could have been hoisted onto the black market, costing communities ravaged by addiction and deaths.

As the pandemic slowed lawsuits across the country and other lawsuits settled with settlements, the West Virginia trial moved forward. During the nearly three-month trial in Charleston in the summer of 2021, plaintiffs argued that the companies should have been alarmed by the significant increase in drugs shipped to the Appalachians during the height of the pill crisis.

In an eight-year period ending in 2014, more than 81 million prescription hydrocodone and oxycodone pills were distributed in the province of West Virginia, enough for 94 pills for each adult and child per year.

Lawyers representing Cabell County and Huntington demanded $2.6 billion from the three companies for efforts to recover from the drug epidemic.

The judge’s decision comes after public nuisance claims were dismissed by a California judge and the Oklahoma Supreme Court. But the argument has prevailed elsewhere: In a New York court, a jury ruled against Teva Pharmaceuticals after the state accused the Israel-based drugmaker of deceptive marketing practices. And in northern Ohio, a federal jury ruled in favor of communities that argued that major pharmacies — CVS, Walgreens and Walmart — were letting opioids fall into the wrong hands without scrutiny.

A trial in West Virginia state court ended after: the state attorney general settled in April for $99 million with Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceutical and for $161.5 million with Teva Pharmaceuticals, AbbVie’s Allergan and others.

Paul Farrell, a West Virginia attorney who represents the communities, began his opening statement by citing Eric Eyre’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting that first revealed distributors shipped 780 million pills to the state in six years.

“This newspaper series sparked a Congressional investigation into pill dumping in West Virginia and has resulted in what has been described as the most complex and largest lawsuit in the country’s history,” Farrell told the judge.

The massive wave of drugs also caught the attention of the DEA, according to Joe Rannazzisi, the former head of the Office of Diversion Control, who testified that the agency warned distributors to take a closer look at their customers, especially “large amounts of controlled substances.” going downstream to pharmacies without any appropriate assessment, due diligence, reporting.”

“They were just shipping,” he said.

After a spike in deaths from prescription opioids, communities argued that street users turned to cheaper drugs, leading to a worsening overdose and addiction problem. At the trial, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams testified that in 2014, seeing a SWAT raid on a large shipment of heroin delivered to a home in his city saw the seriousness of the problem and fueled his sense of urgency. Williams said funds are needed to deal with the worsening crisis.

“I’m not looking for money grabs,” he testified. “All I look for is the ability to ensure my community can heal.”

In the previous decade, 1,100 people died from opioid overdoses in Cabell County, which is considered an epicenter of the crisis. In 2008, more West Virginia residents died from drug overdoses than from car accidents.

At the trial, Robert Nicholas, a lawyer for AmerisourceBergen, acknowledged the toll of the epidemic but said blame on the distributors is “misplaced” and “contrived”.

“No one in Cabell County or Huntington got a prescription for an opioid pain medicine without a doctor,” Nicholas said.

County and city attorneys presented evidence that executives shed light on the public health crisis in emails. They questioned AmerisourceBergen chief executive Chris Zimmerman about a parody of “pillbillies” addicted to OxyContin when he testified in May. According to the company’s lawyers, the public outcry over the news of the email led to death threats.

“I shouldn’t have sent the email,” said Zimmerman, the company’s senior vice president and head of investigations. But he added that the exchange was cherry-picked and that the corporate culture at AmerisourceBergen was of the “highest caliber”.

The father of an 18-year-old who died of an opioid overdose in 2001 took to Twitter to dismiss the verdict.

“NO justice,” wrote Ed Bisch.

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