CHARLESTON (W.Va.) -- Monday's landmark case in which three prominent U.S drug distributors were accused of causing a national health crisis in a West Virginia county was settled by a federal judge. They were accused of distributing 81,000,000 pills over eight years to create an opioid epidemic.
Nearly a year had passed since closing arguments at a bench trial in the suit filed by Cabell County, Huntington against AmerisourceBergen Drug Co. and Cardinal Health Inc.
"The opioid crisis has caused a significant toll on Cabell County and Huntington. While there is a tendency to assign blame in such instances, they must not be decided based on sympathy but on the facts and law," U.S. district Judge David Faber wrote in his 184-page ruling. "In light of the court's findings, the court has decided that judgment should be entered for defendants."
Paul Farrell, a Cabell County attorney, argued that distributors should be held accountable for sending "tsunamis" of prescription pills into the community. He also argued that defendants' conduct was unreasonable and reckless and did not consider the safety and health of the public in an area plagued by opioid addiction.
Companies blamed an increase of prescriptions written and by doctors, as well as poor communication and the low pill quotas established by federal agents.
Faber stated that the lawsuit claimed distributors caused a public nuisance. However, West Virginia's Supreme Court only applied public nuisance law to conduct that is detrimental to public property or resources. He stated that expanding the law to include the sale and marketing of opioids was "incompatible with the history of nuisance and the traditional notions of nuisance."
Faber pointed out that the plaintiffs did not provide any evidence that defendants distributed controlled drugs to any entity that was not registered with the Drug Enforcement Agency and the State Board of Pharmacy. He also stated that the defendants had installed suspicious monitoring systems as required under the Controlled Substances Act.
Faber wrote that plaintiffs had failed to prove that prescription opioids were distributed in Cabell/Huntington due to unreasonable conduct by defendants.
Cardinal Health stated in a statement that the judge's decision "recognizes our demonstrations in court, which was that we don't manufacture, market or prescribe prescription medication but instead provide a secure channel for medications to be delivered from manufacturers to our thousands pharmacy and hospital customers that dispense them directly to patients based upon doctor-ordered prescribing.
"As we continue our limited role within the pharmaceutical supply chain, it is important that we maintain a continuously adaptive and rigorous system to fight controlled substance diversion. We are committed to solving the opioid crisis."
The plaintiffs' attorneys expressed deep disappointment at the decision.
We felt that the evidence from witness statements, company records, and large datasets proved that these defendants were responsible in creating and supervising the infrastructure that allowed West Virginia to be flooded with opioids. We are grateful to all those who provided their testimony to expose the truth, including first responders, public officials and treatment professionals.
Steve Williams, Huntington Mayor, stated that the ruling was a "blow to our community and city but we remain resilient in the face of adversity."
"The principal responsibility for ensuring an epidemic of this scale does not fall on the citizens of our county or city."
Plaintiffs sought $2.5 billion to be used for abatement efforts. The 15-year plan was designed to reduce overdoses and deaths, as well as the number of people suffering from opioid addiction.
Cabell County is an Ohio River County with 93,000 residents. Last year, 1,067 emergency response to suspected overdoses was received. This is significantly more than the previous three years, which saw at least 158 deaths. According to preliminary data from the Office of Drug Control Policy, at least 358 emergency room visits have been made due to suspected overdoses this year.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Covid-19 pandemic triggered the U.S. addiction crisis. Drug overdose deaths surpassed 100,000 during the 12-month period ending April 2021. This is the highest ever number of overdose deaths in a single year.
Cabell-Huntington was the first federal case to include allegations of opioid distribution. This could have significant implications for similar lawsuits. Some of these settlements have been multimillion-dollar in nature, including the tentative $161.5million settlement that West Virginia reached with Teva Pharmaceuticals Inc., AbbVie’s Allergan, and their families.
Over 3,000 lawsuits have been filed in total by state and local governments as well as Native American tribes, unions and hospitals. These are all related to the opioid epidemic. Many claim that drug manufacturers, distributor companies, or pharmacies caused a public nuisance that led to the death of more than 500,000 Americans in the last two decades.