A judge has put the brakes on a decade-old lawsuit targeting former Mingo County doctors who wrote fraudulent opioid painkiller prescriptions and the pharmacists who filled the scripts.
Last week, Judge Joseph Reeder ordered a halt to the lawsuit filed by 29 residents of Mingo County and Martin County, Kentucky. The judge cited the ongoing criminal prosecution of Randy Ballengee, a pharmacist and former owner of Tug Valley Pharmacy in Williamson. Federal prosecutors allege Ballengee operated a “pill mill” and conspired with regional drug distributor Miami-Luken of Dayton, Ohio.
The Mingo residents are suing Ballengee and his now-closed pharmacy, claiming he and other local pharmacies and doctors fed their addictions by prescribing and dispensing too many opioids.
Reeder’s order canceled a trial scheduled to start March 9. The judge ruled the 29 residents must wait until after federal prosecutors concludes their case against Ballengee, who is fighting charges he filled bogus prescriptions. Ballengee’s criminal trial isn’t expected to start until summer, at the earliest. Ballengee was indicted in July 2019.
In his order, Reeder wrote that Ballengee’s Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination might be jeopardized if he was asked to testify in the lawsuit trial before his federal prosecution ended. Reeder concluded that the federal case should be given priority.
“A delay of a few months to resolve the criminal matter will not significantly prejudice the plaintiffs [Mingo and Martin county residents],” Reeder wrote in his order. “The U.S. government also has an interest in an uninterrupted criminal proceeding.”
Charleston lawyer Jim Cagle, who is representing the residents suing Ballengee, had urged the judge not to postpone the trial. Ballengee’s lawyers supported the delay.
Behind closed doors in recent weeks, the two sides have been trying to settle the lawsuit in court-ordered mediation sessions.
The Mingo and Martin county residents are former patients of Mountain Medical Center in Williamson. In 2010 and 2011, they sued the now-shuttered Tug Valley Pharmacy in Williamson and Sav-Rite Pharmacy in Kermit, along with B&K Pharmacy in South Williamson, Kentucky. Four doctors — Victor Teleron, William Ryckman, Katherine Hoover and Diane Shafer — also were sued.
The former Mountain Medical patients claim the doctors and pharmacies caused them to become addicted to pain pills such as hydrocodone and oxycodone.
The three pharmacies were among the top sellers of those two prescription opioids in Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, according to newly released government data. Between 2006 and 2012, Sav-Rite dispensed 13.2 million prescription painkillers, followed by Tug Valley Pharmacy with 8.8 million pills and B&K, 4.25 million doses of the highly addictive pain medications.
HD Media, owner of the Gazette-Mail and Herald-Dispatch, and The Washington Post went to court to pry loose the opioid shipment numbers. Last year, a federal judge issued an order that gave the go-ahead for the release of the information over the objections of the Justice Department and drug companies.
In December 2019, a congressional committee issued a scathing report that chastised drug distribution companies for shipping massive quantities of prescription painkillers to Sav-Rite and Tug Valley.
Former Mingo circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury oversaw the Mingo pill-addiction lawsuits until he was removed from the bench following a federal investigation. He pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge in 2013 and was sentenced to 50 months in prison.
After Thornsbury’s removal, Senior Status Judge John Cummings oversaw the lawsuits. He retired, and Reeder was assigned the case.
The Mingo County lawsuit had been on hiatus for several years after the West Virginia Supreme Court issued a 3-2 ruling in 2015 that kept the Mingo cases alive. The court ruled the Mingo residents had the right to sue doctors and pharmacies for contributing to their addictions even though the residents admitted to breaking the law and abusing drugs in previous years.
After the Supreme Court paved the way for the Mingo lawsuit to continue, the West Virginia Legislature passed a bill in 2016 that blocked similar future cases. The legislation did not affect complaints such as Mingo County’s, which was filed before the law was enacted.