HUNTINGTON — As attorneys attempt to navigate uncharted waters created by the COVID-19 pandemic, sides met via video conference Wednesday in an effort to push forward a Cabell County and Huntington lawsuit against opioid distributors.
During the hearing, a new trial date was set and motions were heard in which the governments accuse three opioid distributors of helping create and fuel opioid abuse in the area.
AmerisourceBergen Corp., McKesson and Cardinal Health — the “Big Three” drug distributors — were named as defendants in the lawsuit in 2017, accusing them of blindly pumping pain pills into Appalachia, thus fueling opioid and, later, heroin addiction. Since then, more than 3,000 cases have been filed by others.
The case had been set to go to trial this week in Charleston. But it was postponed when U.S. District Court Judge David A. Faber ruled that it was too risky to proceed — a ruling made at least twice in 2020, before the COVID-19 cases began to skyrocket across the country.
Despite the defense’s wish to delay the trial until fall, Faber set opening statements for May 3, with each side getting half a day to make their statements. Each side will receive six weeks to present its case, with possible breaks for holidays and important conferences.
The amount of time allotted will be fluid, Faber said, to give sides time to do proper examinations of witnesses. The defense is expected to begin presenting evidence on June 28, and the trial is expected to end around Aug. 9.
Steve Ruby, an attorney for Cardinal Health, asked the judge to delay setting a trial date until the next video conference in February.
“Our concern is that, if we put an early date on the books and the rollout continues in the way it has so far, we are going to be back here in two or three months, facing the reality that it will be difficult or impossible to have a trial,” he said.
Faber denied the request.
“I think this has gone on an awful long time and we need to get some closure,” he said. “That’s not going to happen until we have a schedule.”
Plaintiffs’ attorneys, including Huntington’s Paul Farrell Jr., had previously pointed to data that showed the opioid epidemic was worsening during the COVID-19 pandemic as reason to move forward as soon as possible.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration ARCOS data show that, from 2006 to the end of 2016, West Virginia received 853.5 million prescription pain pills. Of those, 65 million — about 96 per person, per year — were distributed in Cabell County, with millions more going to surrounding counties. West Virginia, one of the hardest-hit areas for the opioid epidemic, suffered 1,017 overdose deaths in 2017, with Cabell County accounting for 157 of those.
The lawsuit argues that the defendants had a duty to monitor and investigate suspicious orders of the opioids and failed to do so. The defendants deny any wrongdoing.