THE TIDE IS TURNING: Drug distributors win landmark opioid case brought by West Virginia local governments

Drug distributors win landmark opioid case brought by West Virginia local governments

The three largest drug distributors in the United States cannot be held liable for the opioid crisis that has racked Huntington and Cabell County, a federal judge has ruled.

Nearly a year after the landmark trial in Charleston ended, U.S. District Judge David Faber sided with the companies: AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson. 

“The opioid crisis has taken a considerable toll on the citizens of Cabell County and the City of Huntington,” the judge wrote in his ruling. “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.”

The city and county had argued that the companies created a “public nuisance” because of the sheer numbers of opioid painkillers they shipped to the area over several years.

Lawyers for the drug distributors argued that West Virginia’s public nuisance law was meant to provide communities relief from situations like polluted air or water from a single factory or business. 

Faber agreed with the companies that the city and county shouldn’t be allowed to use the state’s public nuisance law that way.

The judge noted that none of the West Virginia cases involving the state’s public nuisance law was focused on the sale or distribution of a product, such as opioid painkillers. “The extension of the law of nuisance to cover the marketing and sale of opioids is inconsistent with the history and traditional notions of nuisance,” he wrote in the ruling.

He wrote that two lower court rulings, in Marshall and Boone counties, that did allow public nuisance law to be applied to opioid distribution were “not persuasive” and were inconsistent with how the state Supreme Court has interpreted the law.

“To apply the law of public nuisance to the sale, marketing and distribution of products would invite litigation against any product with a known risk of harm, regardless of the benefits conferred on the public from proper use of the product,” the judge wrote.

The drug distributors also argued that they shouldn’t be held liable for the effects of the opioid epidemic, because all the companies did was supply prescription drugs to licensed pharmacies, as a result of doctors writing prescriptions.

“The volume of prescription opioids in Cabell/Huntington was determined by the good faith prescribing decisions of doctors in accordance with established medical standards,” Faber wrote. “Defendants shipped prescription opioid pills to licensed pharmacies so patients could access the medication they were prescribed.”

Lawyers for Cabell County and Huntington said that the companies shipped 81 million pills to a county with fewer than 100,000 residents over eight years. More than 700 people died of opioid overdoses in Cabell County between 2015 and 2020, according to the state Office of Drug Control Policy.

In their lawsuit, the city and county had asked for $2 billion from the drug distributors for a plan to, among other things, provide more behavioral health services and address the abuse of controlled substances through multiple generations.

On a state level, West Virginia had previously settled its lawsuit with the same three big drug distributors for a total of $73 million. But West Virginia counties, cities and other municipalities weren’t bound by that settlement.

They could have joined the national settlement with the drug distributors, and drug manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, that was proposed last year and finalized this February for $26 billion.

But Huntington and Cabell County officials, as well as dozens more across West Virginia, chose not to be part of the settlement and to pursue lawsuits against the drug companies.

Another trial, with dozens of West Virginia cities, towns and counties suing the same three big drug distributors, is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Charleston. Although this trial is in state court and being handled by Mercer Circuit Judge Derek Swope, many of the other participants, including the lawyers, are the same.

5 Responses


  2. Facts, not feelings. Real facts. Not the neatly tailored, inflated, aggrandized and deliberately polarizing tripe that all too often passes for facts. Especially in the media, where the chosen wording is meant to invoke outrage, which is directed at every place expect for where the responsibility actually lies. Including but not limited to, at chronic pain sufferers. Any pain sufferers, really. But for those of us that will likely have to like this way for the duration of our lives, barring any cures or safe AND adequate alternatives becoming available, it’s a matter of grievous harm.

    Harm done by being left without relief. Harm done by being treated as if we are poison by the very people who are meant to care for our health. Harm done by seeing the skewed and manipulated mis- and dis- information reach the ears and minds of people who genuinely want what’s best for us, to where so many now think they know better than we do because (insert media outlet here) said so. Harm knowingly and intentionally done by inviting special interest groups to infiltrate the policy making process. Harm done by preventing valid information from reaching the level of that which isn’t. Harm done by persecuting and prosecuting health care providers. Harm done by waging a literal war on those of us who just want to be afford quality of life and the right to not have to suffer every day that we survive. The list goes on.

    It’s about time the justice system started stepping up to the bench and gavel, and away from feelings and personal views. Our legal system is not designed to capitulate to anything but the law. Let’s hope they don’t forget again. I know we won’t.

  3. It is absolutely ridiculous that drug companies and physicians are held liable at all. This is a FREE COUNTRY, and there has to be accountability with the people who are not taking their meds as prescribed, or when there’s diversion involved. I’m sick and tired of the blame always being put on the wrong sources. I’m glad the tide is turning. It’s about time.

    • I can’t help but wonder how free are we? You can’t get pain meds unless you drive a hour away and hope they didn’t sell out. Can’t go to the ER when you are ready to jump out of the window. No one understands that unless you are there.

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