Opioid Makers on Trial in West Virginia After 700 People in 1 County Overdosed and Died

The nation's three largest opioid distributors are on trial in West Virginia after more than 700 people died of drug overdoses in a county with a population of less than 100,000, the Associated Press reported.

The West Virginia city of Huntington and surrounding Cabell County sued the national distribution companies AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson after hundreds of residents overdosed and died from opioid addiction from 2015 to 2020.

The trial opened in federal court this month and marks just one of 3,000 lawsuits filed in federal courts in the Northern District of Ohio, as the region grapples with an opioid crisis that has shattered communities over several years.

During the trial, an expert witness for the region used data compiled by the federal government to show that pharmaceutical distributors shipped nearly 128 million doses of prescription opioids to the Cabell County from 2006 to 2014—equating to more than 140 per resident each year, AP reported.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Opioid crisis WV
The nation's three largest opioid distributors are on trial in West Virginia after more than 700 people died of drug overdoses in a county with a population of less than 100,000. Above, paraphernalia for smoking and injecting drugs is seen after it was found during a police search on April 19, 2017, in Huntington, West Virginia. Huntington, the city in the northwest corner of West Virginia, bordering Kentucky, has been portrayed as the epicenter of the opioid crisis. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

The trial in West Virginia, as well as legal proceedings underway in California, could set the stage for resolutions to similar lawsuits brought by thousands of local governments across the United States. Opioid overdoses have been linked to the deaths of nearly 500,000 Americans since 2000 and reached a record of nearly 50,000 in 2019.

Yet the sprawling nature of litigation over the addiction epidemic around the country means it could take years to wrap up, years to get money to communities to expand treatment and to make up for some of the economic losses caused by the crisis.

The trajectory of the lawsuits is unlikely to mirror the one of the lawsuits that states brought against the tobacco industry during the 1990s. The landmark litigation over what cigarette companies knew about the health risks of smoking resulted in a few sweeping settlements that distributed money to nearly every state, while the opioid cases involve a variety of plaintiffs suing companies up and down the pharmaceutical chain in state and federal courts.

Instead, the lawsuits arising from the use of powerful prescription painkillers could evolve more like the litigation over the cancer risk linked to asbestos, which also involved many corporate players and ended up stretching on for decades.

The Huntington and Cabell County case could lead the distributors that filled orders for OxyContin, generic oxycodone pills and other painkillers to agree to settlements elsewhere in the U.S. Other lawsuits target opioid manufacturers, pharmacies, and even the marketing and consulting firms that helped drug makers promote the addictive medications.

University of Georgia law professor Elizabeth Burch expects many companies named in the various lawsuits will have to pay up eventually, regardless of the results of individual trials. But rulings for the plaintiffs could speed things up, she said.

"A win really helps the plaintiffs and creates momentum," Burch said.

State attorneys general, local governments and other entities have filed thousands of lawsuits over the last five years aimed at making segments of the drug industry pay for the lives lost or derailed by addiction. Before April, only one opioid case brought by a government had reached trial; in 2019, on Oklahoma judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay the state $465 million. The company is appealing.

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WV Opioid Trial
The nation's three largest opioid distributors are on trial in West Virginia after more than 700 people died of drug overdoses in a county with a population of less than 100,000. Above, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams (left) and lawyer Rusty Webb enter the Robert C. Byrd United States Courthouse on May 3, 2021, in Charleston, W.Va., for the start of the opioid trial. Kenny Kemp/Charleston Gazette-Mail/Associated Press