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Mingo pharmacist's defamation claims against CBS rejected

A federal judge ruled last week that two “CBS Evening News” reports centered on the opioid epidemic did not defame a Mingo County pharmacist.

The summary judgment ruling, granted by U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin in West Virginia’s Southern District, killed a $15 million complaint filed in 2017 by Samuel Ballengee, who was owner and pharmacist at Tug Valley Pharmacy in Williamson. In his original suit, Ballengee claimed CBS’ reporting on the opioid epidemic in Southern West Virginia was incorrect and defamatory, and intentionally inflicted emotional distress onto him, among other things.

According to Tuesday’s summary judgement, Ballengee could not prove those claims, and Goodwin found no defamation in CBS’ reporting.

“[Ballengee] failed to provide any evidence from which a reasonable juror could find that the statements and implications in the CBS broadcasts were false,” the summary judgement reads. “... [CBS] thoroughly investigated the opioid epidemic in West Virginia, an epidemic that has greatly harmed the state. These broadcasts were not only tolerable — they were applaudable. The people of West Virginia, indeed those all over the country, deserve to know about the evolution of the opioid epidemic and the identities of the bad actors.”

The news segments in question aired on the “CBS Evening News” in 2016. CBS reported that Ballengee was responsible for filling, on several occasions, more than 150 pain pill prescriptions from one clinic.

Ballengee, in his original suit, claimed this was untrue. However, in a deposition given in one of several civil lawsuits filed against him by former customers, Ballengee admitted to filling “maybe 150 to 200” prescriptions daily, most of which were pain medications.

In his original complaint, Ballengee also alleged that CBS’ reporting was responsible for McKesson Corp., the nation’s largest prescription painkiller manufacturer, cutting ties with Tug Valley Pharmacy and refusing to supply any more pills to it.

Gary Boggs, senior director of regulatory affairs at McKesson, said in an affidavit that CBS’ report brought the previously mentioned lawsuits filed against Ballengee and Tug Valley Pharmacy by former patients to McKesson’s attention, according to the ruling. Boggs then reviewed the suits and decided McKesson might break federal and state laws if it continued supplying pills to Tug Valley Pharmacy, Goodwin’s ruling reads — so any responsibility for the end of the contract does not lay with CBS.

The judge ruled that, for all the claims made by Ballengee alleging defamatory statements, Ballengee could not provide a “mere scintilla of evidence” that proved anything was false or should be considered more than a “minor inaccurac[y].”

CBS provided evidence that supported several of the points Ballengee tried to discredit, according to the ruling. Ballengee tried to challenge an assertion that he “contributed to the opioid epidemic for profit,” a claim Goodwin said was “substantially true” given the practices of the pharmacy, the circumstances when it opened and Ballengee’s failure to question the behavior of the two pill mill doctors who operated within walking distance of his business.

Ballengee opened Tug Valley Pharmacy in 2007, and sold it two years ago after the CBS reports, according to his suit. He said he was forced to sell his business for $900,000, considerably less than the $2.2 million he said it was worth.

From 2006 to 2016, drug wholesalers shipped 10.2 million hydrocodone pills and 10.6 million oxycodone pills to Tug Valley Pharmacy and Hurley Drug in Williamson, according to data obtained by the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee and reported in January by the Gazette-Mail.

In his original suit, Ballengee claimed prescriptions at his pharmacy fell nearly 30 percent after CBS News aired its first segments.

The pharmacy shut down in May, according to the Williamson Daily News. After its closure, CVS Pharmacy in South Williamson, Kentucky purchased the rights to manage Tug Valley’s customers.

Caity Coyne is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach Caity Coyne at, 304-348-7939 or follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.

Funerals for Saturday, December 14, 2019

Akers, Trela - 1 p.m., Tyree Funeral Home, Mount Hope.

Cochran, Jacob - 3 p.m., Gatens-Harding Funeral Home, Poca.

Cosby-Matthews, Hattie - Noon, First Baptist Church of Charleston, Charleston.

DeMarino, Jane - 1 p.m., John H. Taylor Funeral Home, Spencer.

Gunther, Jewell - 1 p.m., Calvary Baptist Church, Chapmanville.

Hall, Betty - 1 p.m., St. Andrew United Methodist Church, St. Albans.

Holbrook, Linda - 1 p.m., St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, Pinch.

Johnson Jr., Delbert - 11 a.m., Allen Funeral Home, Hurricane.

King, Edna - Noon, St. Christopher Episcopal Church, Charleston.

Kiser, Kenneth - 6 p.m., Cunningham-Parker-Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Lawrence, Mamie - 2 p.m., O’Dell Funeral Home, Montgomery.

McCutcheon, Alice - 1 p.m., Old Greenbrier Baptist Church, Alderson.

Mills, Melinda - 5 p.m., New Baptist Church, Huntington.

Rannenberg III, Thomas - 2 p.m., Keller Funeral Home, Dunbar.

Ray, Sandra - 1 p.m., Crooked Creek Church of Christ.

Roach, James - 1 p.m., First Baptist Church, Ravenswood.

Tyler, Gloria - Noon, Grace Bible Church, Charleston.

Ulbrich, Sandra - 11 a.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.

Williams, Laura - 2 p.m., Stockert-Paletti Funeral Home, Flatwoods.

Wood, Ruby - 11 a.m., Good Shepherd Mortuary, South Charleston.