Opioids /

West Virginia Opioid Lawsuit Will Be the First of Thousands

Huntington and Cabell County's lawsuit was the first to go against the drug distributors.

Lawyers for a West Virginia city and county will make their closing arguments next week in a lawsuit against the nation’s largest drug distributors for their role in the opioid crisis.

McKesson Corp, AmerisourceBergen Corp, and Cardinal Health, Inc. offered a nationwide $21 billion settlement last week, but Huntington and Cabell Counties refused to sign on. All local governments in West Virginia followed suit.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said the state offered a “resounding no” on the deal, calling it unfair to smaller but hardest-hit states.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drugs created by the three companies as well as Johnson & Johnson led to the overdose deaths of more than 500,000 people from 2009 to 2019.

“There is no jury in the trial. The lawyers will be making their pitch directly to U.S. District Judge David Faber in Charleston, who will decide whether the companies must pay to help remedy the region’s opioid crisis. The distributors’ lawyers are expected to make their closing arguments on Wednesday,” Reuters reports.

Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader described the area’s rampant opioid addiction as “carnage” to Judge Faber. The thousands of overdose deaths and a flood of emergency calls overwhelmed the city.

Faber also reviewed a collection of emails from pharmaceutical executives mocking rural Americans addicted to their company’s painkillers. 

In one email sent after Florida restricted opioid prescriptions, Chris Zimmerman, then a senior executive at AmerisourceBergen, wrote “Watch out Georgia and Alabama… there will be a max exodus of Pillbillies heading north.”

Other executives “ridiculed ‘Hillbilly Heroin’ — a common expression for prescription opioids — and wrote disparaging rhymes about poor Appalachians struggling with addiction. One poem described Kentucky as ‘OxyContinville,’ in a reference to the powerful painkiller OxyContin,” reports Futurism

Zimmerman apologized in court and said that his messages were not representative of the company’s culture.

The nearly three-month trial is one of 3,000 lawsuits local governments have filed against the companies. They are accused of downplaying the risk of opioid pain medications as well as ignoring red flags that they were being sold illegally.

Last week’s settlement would need 40 states and hundreds of cities and counties to approve, says NBC News. For some, the pharmaceutical company’s offer marked progress in the legal battle.

“We are not quite to the finish line yet, but we are making real progress,” said Tennessee attorney general Herb Slatery in a press conference announcing the settlement.”I want to emphasize how we work together … We are red states and blue states. We get along well and we solve problems.”

For others, the deal falls too short. Bob Ferguson, the attorney general of Washington, released a statement announcing he would reject the deal. “The settlement is, to be blunt, not nearly good enough for Washington … It stretches woefully insufficient funds into small payments over nearly 20 years, to be shared among more than 300 Washington jurisdictions.”

When a settlement is eventually reached, the money will be used for prevention, treatment, and recovery. 

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