A federal judge in the United States has ruled in favour of three main American drug distributors in a landmark lawsuit that accused them of causing a health crisis by distributing 81 million pills over eight years in one West Virginia county ravaged by opioid addiction.
The verdict on Monday came nearly a year after closing arguments in a bench trial in the lawsuit filed by Cabell County and the city of Huntington against AmerisourceBergen Drug Company, Cardinal Health and McKesson Corporation.
Keep readinglist of 3 items
“The opioid crisis has taken a considerable toll on the citizens of Cabell County and the City of Huntington. And while there is a natural tendency to assign blame in such cases, they must be decided not based on sympathy, but on the facts and the law,” US District Judge David Faber wrote in the 184-page ruling. “In view of the court’s findings and conclusions, the court finds that judgment should be entered in defendants’ favor.”
The verdict comes as more than 3,300 lawsuits have been filed, largely by state and local governments, seeking to hold those and other companies responsible for an opioid abuse epidemic linked to more than 500,000 overdose deaths over the last 20 years.
The distributors, along with drugmaker Johnson & Johnson (J&J), last year agreed to pay up to $26bn to resolve the thousands of lawsuits brought against them by state and local governments around the country.
But communities in hard-hit West Virginia opted against joining a national opioid settlement in favour of seeking a bigger recovery. Another trial pitting the distributors against West Virginia communities begins Tuesday in state court.
Last year in Cabell County, an Ohio River county of 93,000 residents, there were 1,067 emergency responses to suspected overdoses — significantly higher than each of the previous three years – with at least 158 deaths. So far this year, suspected overdoses have prompted at least 358 responses and 465 emergency room visits, according to preliminary data from the state Department of Health and Human Resources’ Office of Drug Control Policy.
Monday’s ruling adds to the mixed record for opioid cases that have gone to trial nationally, with courts in Oklahoma and California last year rejecting similar claims against drugmakers like J&J.
The US addiction crisis was inflamed by the COVID-19 pandemic with drug overdose deaths surpassing 100,000 in the 12-month period ending in April 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a year.
Cabell County lawyer Paul Farrell had argued the distributors should be held responsible for sending a “tsunami” of prescription pain pills into the community and that the defendants’ conduct was unreasonable, reckless and disregarded the public’s health and safety in an area ravaged by opioid addiction.
The companies blamed an increase in prescriptions written by doctors along with poor communication and pill quotas set by federal agents.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they were “deeply disappointed” in the ruling.
“We felt the evidence that emerged from witness statements, company documents, and extensive datasets showed these defendants were responsible for creating and overseeing the infrastructure that flooded West Virginia with opioids. Outcome aside, our appreciation goes out to the first responders, public officials, treatment professionals, researchers, and many others who gave their testimony to bring the truth to light.”
Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said the ruling was “a blow to our city and community, but we remain resilient even in the face of adversity.
“The citizens of our city and county should not have to bear the principal responsibility of ensuring that an epidemic of this magnitude never occurs again.”
The plaintiffs had sought more than $2.5bn that would have gone towards abatement efforts. The goal of the 15-year abatement plan would have been to reduce overdoses, overdose deaths and the number of people with opioid use disorder.