HUNTINGTON — Nearly three years after the first lawsuits alleging several drug firms fueled the opioid epidemic in Huntington and Cabell County were filed, they are expected to be sent back to West Virginia by a federal judge to be set for trial in a case that could net the area millions to help negate issues created by drug abuse.
Cabell County and Huntington were among the first in 2017 to file claims against the drug firms. While the case was filed in local court, it was sent to the desk of Cleveland-based U.S. District Judge Dan Polster, when a multidistrict litigation (MDL) group was created to deal with the complex claims of about 2,500 similar cases.
The order for remand for the two cases was requested to the MDL panel Monday by Polster, who will remain the “hub” of all other litigation and the center for discussions of global settlements.
With the remand, the Cabell County and Huntington cases will now be taken over by a federal judge located in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia. The cases have not been assigned to a judge yet, though.
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 — or 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 to 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.
Huntington-based attorney Paul T. Farrell Jr., who represents Cabell County in its claims, previously said that, while he is pushing forward with a trial in mind, he will seek $500 million from three of the main drug firms — Cardinal Health, the McKesson Corp. and AmerisourceBergen — during settlement talks prior to the start of a trial.
By sending those two cases back to a West Virginia court, any settlement money will go solely to the two governments. Farrell said a plan created by a 30-person group of government officials, health officials and others has been created to decide how any money awarded will be spent. The money also would be placed in a trust and be controlled by a board.
The move for remand comes about a month after Cabell County commissioners agreed with Polster’s request to scale back their claims against several drug firms. Polster had requested the two governments to limit the type of defendants to only distributors and pharmacies.
He also requested that attorneys limit the number of defendants against whom they are serious about facing in the initial trial, and asked Cabell County and Huntington to limit the amount of claims made against those companies.
Commissioners agreed to ask the judge to sever and remand Cardinal Health, the McKesson and AmerisourceBergen, who have been refereed to as the “Big Three,” but asked to reserve all causes of actions and damages filed against the remaining companies and pharmacies in the lawsuit.
They also agreed to dismiss all claims against those companies — except for public nuisance, racketeering by pharmacies, civil conspiracy and punitive damages — as the judge has requested.
In October, the “Big Three” settled for $215 million in the final hour before trial with Cuyahoga and Summit counties, in Ohio. These were to be the first in the 2,500 lawsuits to go to trial.