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CHARLESTON (Reuters) - U.S. drug distributors knowingly flooded a West Virginia city and county with addictive opioid painkillers, lawyers for the governments told a court on Tuesday at the close of a landmark trial, as they seek $2.5 billion to remedy the crisis.
In closing arguments, the lawyers for Huntington and Cabell County told U.S. District Judge David Faber in Charleston that evidence showed the region’s crisis was caused by McKesson Corp, AmerisourceBergen Corp and Cardinal Health Inc.
Paul Farrell, who represents the county, said the sheer volume of drugs the defendants sold, more than 81 million pills in a region with less than 100,000 people, “demonstrates a failure to maintain effective control to prevent diversion.”
He said evidence at trial, including internal communications from the companies, showed they had looked the other way from suspicious orders.
“The defendants saw everything, they overlooked a great deal and they corrected very little,” he said, paraphrasing a quote from Pope John XXIII used by one AmerisourceBergen investigator in his email signature.
The closing arguments came less than a week after more than dozen state attorneys general proposed a $21 billion nationwide settlement with the distributors.
However, West Virginia was the epicenter of the crisis and Huntington, Cabell County and the rest of the state’s local governments have opposed the agreement and are betting they can do better pursuing their own lawsuits.
Anne Kearse, arguing for city, emphasized the devastating impact of opioid addiction on the community.
“It cuts across gender. It cuts across race. It cuts across every socioeconomic line,” she said. “There’s no typical person that overdoses.”
The non-jury trial will be decided by Faber, who must determine if the companies are liable for the epidemic and what they must pay to remedy it.
The distributors’ lawyers are expected to begin their closing arguments Tuesday afternoon.
The defendants have denied the claims, saying they complied with state and federal laws and blame doctors’ prescribing practices for a surge in opioid use.
Huntington and Cabell’s case was the first against the distributors to go to trial and will be a key test of the allegations.
Farrell on Tuesday detailed the severity of the crisis in Huntington, where he said there had been 6,494 overdoses from 2015 to 2020 and 1,151 overdose deaths from 2001 to 2018. More than 8,000 suffered from opioid use disorder, he told the judge.
He said 10% of the Cabell County’s roughly 91,000 residents were addicted to opioids.
Kearse told the judge public health and law enforcement officials were prepared to use any money from the lawsuit for treatment and prevention programs.
“We submit to your honor that the county and city have infrastructure within the community to be able to do what they need to do with sustainable funding,” she said.
Nationwide, nearly 500,000 people died from opioid overdoses in the from 1999 to 2019, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC earlier this month said provisional data showed 69,710 opioid overdose deaths in 2020, up more than 36% from the previous year.
More than 3,000 lawsuits have been filed by local governments around the country accusing drugmakers of downplaying the risk of opioid pain medications, and distributors and pharmacies of ignoring red flags that they were being sold illegally.
Other trials are also under way against drugmakers in New York and California, and pharmacy chains are scheduled to face trials in the coming year.
Last week’s settlement, which includes an additional $5 billion from drugmaker Johnson & Johnson, could point the way to a broader deal including more defendants. But getting the full $26 billion depends on widespread participation by states and local governments, and some leaders and advocates have expressed skepticism.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey last week said the state was a “resounding no” on the deal, calling it unfair to smaller but harder-hit states.
Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, is expected in the coming weeks to seek approval from a U.S. bankruptcy court for a $10 billion plan to resolve the thousands of lawsuits against the company.