This article was originally published in Bloomberg News.
From America’s overdose capital, lawyer Paul Farrell is rallying communities to sue.
The place might sound familiar, even if you’ve never been there: the Appalachian foothills, down by the Ohio River, where the sirens scream addiction and death.
Twenty-six overdoses in one afternoon. The highest death rate in the state. One in 10 babies born dependent. Huntington, West Virginia, is the capital of America’s opioid epidemic.
Paul Farrell knows all about it. He grew up here, went off to college, and returned home. He watched the calamity unfold. First it was prescription pills like OxyContin. Then it was heroin, $20 a hit.
Now, Farrell is looking to set things right. He’s the engine behind one of the most daunting legal endeavors in modern U.S. history: more than 800 lawsuits brought by cities and counties against central figures in the opioid tragedy—the makers of prescription painkillers and the companies that distribute them.
For now, he’s working out of a carpeted, windowless office barely big enough for his desk, some chairs and a pair of folding tables in an old bank building downtown. The lock on the building’s shared bathroom doesn’t work.
But if Farrell succeeds in making the industry pay for the epidemic’s toll, he stands to become wildly rich: By one estimate, the recovery in the opioid cases—which could be years away—could exceed $50 billion. Twenty-five percent of his clients’ portion would go directly to his firm and the firms he is working alongside.
With so much money at stake, it might be easy to view Farrell as one of the greatest ambulance-chasers of all time. He makes no apologies.
“We eat what we kill,” Farrell, 46, says. “Sometimes it’s a feast. Sometimes it’s a famine.”
On the opioid cases, he says: “I’m stalking. I’m stalking the herd.”
More famous lawyers are hunting, too—Mike Moore, for one. As the attorney general of Mississippi, Moore helped negotiate the largest corporate legal settlement in U.S. history: a $246 billion deal with the tobacco industry in 1998. Lately, Moore has been going after the drug industry over opioids, crisscrossing the U.S. to recruit people to his cause. Hundreds of cases have been consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio for what’s called multidistrict litigation.
But Farrell is spearheading the legal fight for many communities, notably in the Ohio River Valley, where tired coal and steel towns have come to symbolize the crisis. His five-lawyer firm and legal consortium represents more than half of the suing communities.
His legal theory begins with West Virginia Code Section 7-1-3KK. The public nuisance law was written to address relatively workaday issues such as landfills and environmental waste. Farrell is basically arguing that drug makers and wholesalers created an epic public nuisance that is costing governments many millions to clean up.
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