A Mingo County pharmacist claims in a lawsuit filed earlier this month that he was defamed by “CBS Evening News” during reports on West Virginia’s prescription drug epidemic.
Samuel Ballengee sold Tug Valley Pharmacy last year after, he claims, his good name was ruined when CBS reported he had been named in multiple lawsuits alleging he illegally filled prescriptions for powerful painkillers to make millions of dollars.
Ballengee opened the pharmacy in 2007 and, his lawsuit states, was so well-respected that his business was voted “Best Pharmacy in the Mingo/Logan County area” for three years between 2007 and 2011.
He had loyal customers and was even given a certificate of appreciation for his dedication to the “health, happiness, and character development of children and families” from the town of Williamson in 2015, according to the complaint filed Jan. 6 in federal court in Charleston.
Ballengee “built his business to the point that he was able to adequately maintain a salary of approximately $290,000 a year,” the lawsuit states.
When Ballengee and Tug Valley Pharmacy were sued in four separate lawsuits between 2010 and 2013, Ballengee’s lawsuit claims his reputation and business weren’t harmed. Those lawsuits, filed against doctors and pharmacies by Charleston lawyer Jim Cagle on behalf of former patients, are still pending.
It wasn’t until “CBS Evening News” aired a broadcast titled, “Drug Distributors Under Fire in West Virginia Pain Killer Epidemic,” that Ballengee claims things drastically changed.
“Well, tonight Jim Axelrod and producer Ashley Velie continue their investigation in West Virginia, where the state is suing, accusing pharmacists and drug distributors of making millions, pushing narcotics to anyone who wants them,” host Scott Pelley says at the beginning of the broadcast, the lawsuit states.
Online versions of the broadcast included an image of Ballengee captured from the television report.
In addition to CBS, Ballengee is suing Axelrod, Velie and Pelley. He asks to be awarded no less than $5 million for compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages. He is represented by Huntington lawyer James McQueen Jr. and Charleston lawyer Christopher Heavens. A request for comment made last week with employees in CBS’ legal department was not returned.
“The CBS Defendants intentionally published false, exaggerated, and defamatory statements and created egregious false impressions,” the complaint states. Ballengee “will suffer future or continuing injury and damage to his reputation, his employability as a pharmacist, and the extreme emotional distress and mental anguish associated therewith.”
McKesson Corporation ended its relationship with Ballengee after the CBS report, the lawsuit states. Ballengee and his pharmacy had entered into a supply agreement with McKesson for prescription drugs in September 2015.
The lawsuit notes that before McKesson would agree to supply his pharmacy, Ballengee had to meet with a compliance officer and provide information about his prescribing history and hand over reports on his dispensing habits.
Ballengee lost an attempt to compel McKesson to honor its supply agreement.
In the two months after the broadcast, the Tug Valley pharmacy’s number of prescriptions filled per month dropped by more than 30 percent, according to the complaint.
The pharmacy, the lawsuit states, “was rapidly running out of prescription medications and was unable to find a distributor to sell him controlled pharmaceutical drugs.”
Ballengee’s suit claims he was also rapidly losing customers, who didn’t want to go to different pharmacies to fill prescriptions.
Ballengee claims that three major pharmaceutical distributors — Richie Pharmaceutical, PBA Health and ParMed Pharmaceuticals — refused to supply him and cited the CBS broadcast as why.
“Faced with the prospect of having to terminate his employees and ruin a local business he had built from the ground up, [Ballengee] elected to search for a buyer for his business,” the lawsuit states.
Ballengee sold his pharmacy for about $900,000. The transfer of the business was finalized in March 2016. The complaint states the pharmacy was valued at more than $2.2 million.
In May 2016, another report aired about West Virginia’s battle with prescription opioids on CBS. That report focused on the lawsuit West Virginia filed against McKesson.
Records show that during a five-year period, McKesson shipped nearly 100 million prescription opiates to West Virginia, which has a population of 1.8 million.
“McKesson terminated its contract with Tug Valley, but only after ... our CBS News investigation,” Axelrod stated during the broadcast, according to the complaint.
Last May, Dr. Michael Kostenko, who ran Coal Country Clinic in Daniels, filed a lawsuit against “CBS Evening News,” among others, over the same reports. Kostenko, who last month was indicted by federal prosecutors, claimed the news agency misrepresented his medical practice as a pain clinic and used him as an example of a “drug trafficker.”
Kostenko is charged with writing illegal prescriptions for pain pills that led to the overdose deaths of three patients, according to prosecutors.
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