(The Hill) — A federal judge ruled in favor of three drug companies on Monday in a lawsuit accusing them of being responsible for the opioid epidemic in certain communities in West Virginia.
Judge David Faber rejected arguments from the city of Huntington, W.Va., and the Cabel County Commission that AmerisourceBergen Drug Co., Cardinal Health Inc. and McKesson Corp.’s distribution of prescription opioids in Huntington and Cabel County caused an opioid epidemic and a “public nuisance” in those areas.
“The opioid crisis has taken a considerable toll on the citizens of Cabell County and the City of Huntington,” the ruling reads. “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. In view of the court’s findings and conclusions, the court finds that judgment should be entered in defendants’ favor.”
Faber said the state’s law against public nuisances has only been applied to conduct interfering with public property or resources, not the distribution or sale of a product. He said extending the meaning would be “inconsistent” with the history and “traditional notions” of a nuisance.
Representatives for the plaintiffs said in a joint statement that they are “deeply disappointed” personally and for the citizens of Huntington and Cabell County.
“We felt the evidence that emerged from witness statements, company documents, and extensive datasets showed these defendants were responsible for creating and overseeing the infrastructure that flooded West Virginia with opioids,” they said. “Outcome aside, our appreciation goes out to the first responders, public officials, treatment professionals, researchers, and many others who gave their testimony to bring the truth to light.”
Attorneys said they will discuss possible alternatives with their clients in the wake of the ruling.
Huntington Mayor Steve Williams (D) said in a statement that the case was about holding the distributors accountable and providing medical providers with resources to mitigate the opioid crisis.
“We respect the Court and the judicial system through which we have sought remedy, but my disappointment cannot be measured,” Williams said. “The decision today is a blow to our city and community, but we remain resilient even in the face of adversity.”
Williams said the drug companies are part of a “powerful industry” responsible for fueling the epidemic in the city and across the country. He said he will continue to fight for those who lost their “lives and livelihoods” to opioids.
“The citizens of our city and county should not have to bear the principal responsibility of ensuring that an epidemic of this magnitude never occurs again,” he said.
McKesson said in a statement to The Hill that it maintains and regularly enhances programs to detect and prevent opioid diversion in the pharmaceutical supply chain. It said the company only provides controlled substances to pharmacies that are state-licensed and registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“We continue to be deeply concerned about the impact that the opioid crisis is having on families and communities across our nation,” the statement reads. “We see prescription drug diversion and abuse as an issue that needs to be addressed through a comprehensive approach that includes regulators, manufacturers, pharmacies, distributors, doctors and patients.”
Lauren Esposito, the vice president of public relations for AmerisourceBergen, said in a statement to The Hill that the company is pleased with the court’s decision. She said AmerisourceBergen and other pharmaceutical distributors have needed to “walk a legal and ethical tightrope” between providing access to medication and preventing the diversion of controlled substances.
“Today’s ruling will help enable our company to do what we do best — ensuring that health care facilities like hospitals and community pharmacies have access to the medications that patients and care providers need – ranging from blood pressure medications to chemotherapies to COVID-19 treatments and, as appropriate, prescription pain medications,” she said.
She pointed to a section of the ruling that stated that the companies “substantially complied” with the Controlled Substances Act to have in place suspicious order monitoring systems.
Cardinal Health did not immediately return a request for comment from The Hill.