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West Virginia city makes final pitch in opioid lawsuit seeking $2.5 billion

Stock MarketsJul 27, 2021 10:19AM ET
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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A general view of the courthouse where the three largest U.S. drug distributors are facing their first trial over claims that they fueled the opioid crisis, in Charleston, West Virginia, U.S., May 3, 2021. REUTERS/Brendan Pierson/File Photo

By Brendan Pierson

CHARLESTON (Reuters) -Lawyers for a West Virginia city and its county made their closing arguments on Tuesday in their three-month landmark trial against the nation's largest drug distributors, seeking $2.5 billion to remedy an opioid crisis they say the companies helped cause.

Huntington and Cabell County, along with the rest of the state's local governments, have opposed the $21 billion nationwide settlement with distributors McKesson Corp (NYSE:MCK), AmerisourceBergen (NYSE:ABC) Corp and Cardinal Health Inc (NYSE:CAH) announced last week, instead betting that they can do better on their own.

The lawyers laid out their case to U.S. District Judge David Faber in Charleston and said that evidence showed the distributors were responsible for the region's addiction crisis.

“81 million pills, distributed to a community of 100,000 people or less, isn’t a substantial factor in the opioid epidemic," attorney Paul Farrell, who represents Cabell County, told the judge. "It will cause an opioid epidemic.”

The non-jury trial will be decided by Faber, who must determine if the companies are liable for the epidemic and what they must pay to remedy it.

The distributors' lawyers are expected to make their closing arguments later on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The defendants have denied the claims, saying they complied with state and federal laws and blame doctors' prescribing practices for a surge in opioid use.

Huntington and Cabell's case was the first against the distributors to go to trial and will be a key test of the allegations.

Farrell told Faber that opioid addiction is an "imminent threat to public safety."

He detailed the severity of the crisis in Huntington, where he said there had been 6,494 overdoses from 2015 to 2020 and 1,151 overdose deaths from 2001 to 2018. More than 8,000 suffered from opioid use disorder, he told the judge.

He said 10% of the Cabell County's roughly 91,000 residents were addicted to opioids.

Nationwide, nearly 500,000 people died from opioid overdoses in the from 1999 to 2019, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC earlier this month said provisional data showed 69,710 opioid overdose deaths in 2020, up more than 36% from the previous year.

More than 3,000 lawsuits have been filed by local governments around the country accusing drugmakers of downplaying the risk of opioid pain medications, and distributors and pharmacies of ignoring red flags that they were being sold illegally.

Faber has heard testimony from Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader, who described the impact of opioid addiction on the region as "carnage," with thousands of overdose deaths and a flood of emergency calls overwhelming the city, the Mountain State Spotlight reported.

He also saw internal AmerisourceBergen emails mocking prescription opioid addiction in the state, including parody lyrics for the theme song to the television sitcom "The Beverly Hillbillies."

The title of the show, about a formerly poor family that moves to a wealthy California enclave, used a disparaging term for rural Americans.

Former AmerisourceBergen Vice President Chris Zimmerman, the author of some of those emails, apologized in court but said the messages did not reflect the company's culture, according to newspaper reports.

Other trials are also under way against drugmakers in New York and California, and pharmacies are scheduled to face trials in the coming year.

Last week's settlement, which also includes $5 billion from drugmaker Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ), could point the way to a broader deal including more defendants. But getting the full $26 billion depends on widespread participation by states and local governments, and some have expressed skepticism.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey last week said the state was a "resounding no" on the deal, calling it unfair to smaller but harder-hit states.

Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, is expected in the coming weeks to seek approval from a U.S. bankruptcy court for a $10 billion plan to resolve the thousands of lawsuits against the company.

West Virginia city makes final pitch in opioid lawsuit seeking $2.5 billion
 

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