CLEVELAND — Lawsuits filed by the Cabell County Commission and City of Huntington claiming reprehensible harm by opioid pill manufacturers and distributors have been selected out of hundreds of similar lawsuits across the country to be among the first to go to trial.
According to an order issued Monday by federal Judge Dan Polster, lawsuits filed by the two governments have been placed as next in line for trial. The two sides are expected to meet during the first weeks of the new year to set a trial date and evidence exchange will start Jan. 25 in the two cases, Huntington attorney Paul T. Farrell Jr. said.
The cases are the second group selected to move forward to trial by Polster. In April 2018, Polster scheduled three Ohio cases to be the first to see trial in September 2019. Those lawsuits were filed by Cleveland and the Ohio counties of Cuyahoga and Summit.
There are more than 1,600 lawsuits filed with similar allegations nationally, and Polster is overseeing those cases.
Farrell said by selecting the Cabell County and Huntington cases, which were among the first of their type to be filed in the country, Polster is showing the importance of finding solutions for communities like Huntington.
“We are no longer sitting and waiting for someone else to help us with a solution,” he said. “This is what we’ve been preaching since Day One: community problems require community solutions.”
“There will be a reckoning,” he later added. “Magic or tragic.”
Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said the opportunity can help Huntington move from being the opioid capital of the world to being an example for the rest of the country.
“We are able to set the standard the nation will follow. We have said that time and time again. We will set an example that others will follow, and they have been,” he said. “I think in large measure, this is our just award because we didn’t just sit back and measure the wind as to whether this was something we would take on. We stated the brutal facts and had faith in our ability to prevail.”
Williams said if the lawsuits are successful, he thinks the money from any financial awards should go toward three things: saving lives, restoring order in the community and prosecution of those peddling drugs in the community.
Cabell County, represented by Farrell, and Huntington, represented by Rusty Webb, were two of the first local governments to file lawsuits in 2017 against opioid manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies. The lawsuits allege the groups breached their duty to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders of prescription opiates coming into the area over the past several years — a duty the lawsuit claims companies had under the Controlled Substance Act of 1970.
Combined, the oversupply of painkillers and excessive number of prescriptions have been blamed for fueling the opioid epidemic throughout the state. West Virginia lost more than 900 lives to overdose deaths in 2017.
Because the number of lawsuits has grown to more than 1,600 — many of which have been filed in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio — a federal judicial panel ruled the cases should be grouped together in Cleveland, where Polster has been ruling on motions as the cases move forward.
The cases, including Cabell County and Huntington, will be sent back to Huntington for trial. Farrell said the sides could still reach a settlement in the case, although he added he was not looking for a settlement, but instead a resolution.
The co-lead counsels for the Plaintiffs’ Executive Committee issued a statement on behalf of the plaintiff attorneys in the multidistrict litigation: “The devastation of this conduct has been widely documented but we hope, with the needed resources, these communities will serve as leaders and models for recovery.”
Cabell County and Huntington’s lawsuits allege the companies sold more than 86 million doses of opioid pain medication in Cabell County between 2006 and 2014 while the county’s population was about 96,000.
Huntington’s lawsuit was filed in 2017 against the “Big Three” drug distributors — AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson — and former Dr. Gregory Donald Chaney.
Cabell County’s was originally filed in 2017 against the “Big Three” and H.D. Smith Wholesale Drug Co., CVS, Rite Aid, Wal-Mart, Kroger and Walgreens, but an amended complaint was filed in April 2018 when Polster ordered the county be given drug distribution data from the federal government.
The information released by the Drug Enforcement Administration included 27 gigabytes of raw data, which allowed attorneys to see the transactions between manufacturers and wholesalers in Cabell County from 2006 to 2014. The Herald-Dispatch and Charleston Gazette-Mail had filed motions together seeking the release of that information, which Polster denied in July.
The amended complaint added seven manufactures, as well as companies associated with them, including Purdue Pharma, Actavis, Cephalon, Janssen, Endo, Insys Therapeutics and Mallinckrodt, because of their alleged improper marketing of the opioids they manufactured.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee released in December a scathing report against the DEA and other opioid manufactures, stating they had not done their due diligence in preventing the opioid epidemic.