Huntington and Cabell County, West Virginia, are up next in addiction crisis litigation.
Opioid overdoses have been linked to the deaths of nearly 500,000 Americans since 2000 and reached a record of close to 50,000 in 2019. Now, the trial in West Virginia, as well as proceedings in California, could offer insight into resolutions to come for similar cases. West Virginia’s two plaintiffs, Huntington and Cabell County, could lead opioid distributors to agree to settlements elsewhere in the U.S. in lawsuits alleging deceptive marketing by manufacturers, pharmacies, advertising, and consulting firms.
University of Georgia law professor Elizabeth Burch expects many companies named in the various lawsuits will have to pay up eventually, and says, “A win really helps the plaintiffs and creates momentum.”
Jeffrey Simon, a Dallas-based attorney representing more than 50 local governments in opioid cases, added, “The distributors and manufacturers have known for some time that they can’t be going from pillar to post, from one trial to the next.”
For activists, settlements do not equal accountability. They want payments for victims, or their families, and information about how the companies were involving with fueling the crisis. Some also want to see criminal convictions. They want there to be some sort of tangible retribution for those who’ve lost the battle.
Consulting firm McKinsey & Company has settled with most states for nearly $600 million. Massachusetts sued Publicis Health earlier this month, accusing it of putting together marketing campaigns aimed at drawing in vulnerable consumers.
“They knew what they were doing was wrong, they made the opioid crisis worse, and they kept cashing Purdue’s checks,” Attorney General Maura Healey explained of Publicis’s alleged role. “What they did was wrong. It hurt people. It killed people.”
Purdue Pharma and Mallinckrodt have filed bankruptcy, and close to 3,000 lawsuits filed in federal courts have been consolidated under the direction of U.S. District Court Judge Dan Polster of the Northern District of Ohio. Polster has scheduled a trial for later this year involving pharmacy chains.
West Virginia’s case against distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson is the first to go to trial. From 2015 to 2020, more than 700 people died of opioid overdoses in Cabell County among its under 100,000 people. An expert witness for the county and Huntington city used data compiled by the federal government to show that pharmaceutical distributors shipped nearly 128 million doses of prescription opioids to the county from 2006 to 2014.
Joanne Peterson, who founded the Massachusetts support network Learn to Cope said families and victims have lost everything important in their lives. She said, “They’ve lost everything. They’ve lost homes. They’ve lost their children. Children have lost parents.”
“Protracted litigation in thousands of cases will never lead to a fair resolution for millions of people in our country who are suffering,” Laura Brewer, a spokesperson for North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, added..
“You can murder one person and go to jail for life. You murder hundreds of thousands? You just put up some money and you don’t go to jail,” said Cynthia Munger, a Wayne, Pennsylvania, resident. “Where’s the justice in that?”