Pharmaceutical companies face potential $1 billion West Virginia opioid litigation

In the latest round in the ongoing US court battle over opioids, the three largest US drug distributors are facing trial this week in West Virginia.

The lawsuit accuses them of fuelling the so-called opioid crisis which critics claim has resulted in 500,000 overdose deaths in the United States over two decades.

The suit claims that AmerisourceBergen, McKesson and Cardinal Health ignored red flags that opioids were being diverted to illegal channels, apparently flooding the state with hundreds of millions pills.

Huntington, a city in West Virginia, and Cabell County are expected to seek more than $1 billion to remedy the harms caused by opioids.

The distributors have said that they cannot be held liable for filling orders for drugs prescribed by doctors.

They have also argued the plaintiffs’ legal theory of public nuisance – more commonly used for damage to public goods like roads or water supply – does not apply to opioids.

“AmerisourceBergen is looking forward to sharing with the Court the facts about our role in the supply chain and our long-standing commitment to fulfilling our regulatory responsibilities and doing our part to combat the opioid crisis,” AmerisourceBergen said in a statement.

McKesson and Cardinal declined to comment on the case.

The non-jury trial before US District Judge David Faber in Charleston comes after Huntington and Cabell, along with other West Virginia towns and counties, opted out of a proposed $26 billion nationwide settlement with the three distributors and pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson. That deal has not been finalised.

Opioids have resulted in the overdose deaths of nearly 500,000 people in the United States from 1999 to 2019, according to US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. West Virginia is among the hardest hit states, recording more opioid prescriptions and overdose deaths per capita than any other in 2018, according to data from the US National Institute of Health.

The trial comes as nationwide opioid litigation picks up momentum after being stalled for a year by the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 3,300 lawsuits by local governments nationwide are pending against opioid manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies. Many are consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio, who has designated some, including the Huntington case, for trial in hopes of encouraging a broader settlement.

Last month four leading pharmaceutical manufacturers, including Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, went to trial over allegations they helped fuel an opioid crisis that, it is claimed, has resulted in nearly 500,000 overdose deaths in the United States.

Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Endo International and Abbvie’s  Allergan unit are accused by several California counties of marketing painkillers in ways that downplayed their addictive risks in order to boost sales.

The pharmaceutical companies deny wrongdoing, arguing they acted appropriately in marketing medications approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, and that the counties cannot prove their promotion of opioids caused the crisis.