HUNTINGTON — A Charleston federal court judge has set the first Charleston-based hearing to occur in nearly three years in Huntington and Cabell County’s opioid lawsuits that claim several drug firms fueled the opioid epidemic locally.
The order was issued after a U.S. Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation signed off on sending the cases back to West Virginia earlier this month. In 2017, the cases had been sent — along with more than 2,500 others — to the desk of Cleveland-based U.S. District Judge Dan Polster, who has been overseeing the cases to increase judicial efficiency.
After making final tweaks in the two West Virginia cases — such as reducing the number of defendants and claims against the remaining ones — Polster sought for the panel to send the cases back to West Virginia for trial, to which they agreed.
In an order issued Thursday by David A. Faber, senior U.S. district judge for the Southern District of West Virginia, a status conference was set in the two cases for 2:30 p.m. Jan. 27 in Charleston.
The last time the attorneys met in a Charleston courtroom was in May 2017, before the multidistrict litigation group was created as dozens of other entities followed Cabell County and Huntington in their filings.
Ahead of the Jan. 27 meeting, Faber ordered the involved parties to file statements by Jan. 23, as to where they believe the case status lies. The questions should answer if the cases are ready for trial, if there are motions or outstanding issues that need to be resolved and what they believe the forthcoming trial would look like — with a jury or tried by a judge — and how long they believe it would take.
The lawsuits argue that manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies and pharmacy benefit managers breached their duty to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders of prescription opiates coming into the states over the past several years — a duty the lawsuits claim companies have under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration data showed that from 2006 to the end of 2016, West Virginia received 853.5 million prescription pain pills. Of those, 65 million — about 96 per person per year — were distributed in Cabell County, with millions more going to surrounding counties.
West Virginia suffered 1,017 overdose deaths in 2017, compared with 890 in 2016, 735 in 2015 and 629 in 2014. Cabell County led the state, with 157 in 2017, 92 in 2016, and 82 in 2015.
Local attorney Paul T. Farrell Jr. is the main attorney for Cabell County, while Charleston-based attorney Rusty Webb represents Huntington.
Farrell has said while he is pursuing a trial in the case, he will seek $500 million from the three main drug firms — Cardinal Health, McKesson Corp. and AmerisourceBergen — during settlement talks prior to the start of a trial. Any money received from the case will be put into a trust controlled by a board. A detailed plan has been created by a 30-person group of government and health officials, as well as others fighting the opioid epidemic in the area.
The same three companies settled with Cuyahoga and Summit counties in Ohio for $215 million in the final hour before the first trial was set to occur.