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In The News: City of Huntington sues drug wholesalers over opioid epidemic

The City of Huntington has filed a lawsuit against three drug companies and a physician it claims fueled opioid epidemic within in the city and across the state.

AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation; Cardinal Health Inc.; McKesson Corporation; and Dr. Gregory Donald Chaney were named as defendants in the suit.

The drug wholesalers shipped 423 million pain pills to West Virginia between 2007 and 2012, earning $17 billion in net income, according to a complaint filed Jan. 19 in Cabell Circuit Court.

The City of Huntington claims Chaney wrote prescriptions for medications, including schedule II opioids, to Huntington residents.

Chaney, who practiced medicine in Barboursville, admitted in federal court he wrote a fraudulent prescription to illegally obtain more than 100 oxycodone pills from an employee. He could be sentenced to four years and receive a $250,000 fine at his April 3 sentencing.

“Through their acts and omissions the defendants have inserted themselves as an integral part of the epidemic of opioid abuse,” the complaint states. “As alleged herein, this epidemic consist of medical providers, pharmacies and distributors of controlled substances, each of whom knowingly or while acting grossly negligent prescribe, dispense or distribute prescription medicine for illegitimate medical purposes.”

Each act alone would be ineffective to divert controlled substances for illegitimate purposes, but each act together causes and contributes to the opioid epidemic, according to the suit.

The city claims the defendants’ actions have caused and will continue to cause the city to disburse substantial sums of public funds to deal with the significant consequences of the opiod epidemic that was fueled by the defendants’ illegal, reckless and malicious actions in flooding the state with highly addictive prescription medications without regard for the adverse consequences to the city and its residents.

The defendants’ actions were motivated by financial gain without regard to the welfare of the city and its residents and have caused substantial damages, including an increase in expenses of drug abuse treatment programs; prevention and training costs for law enforcement, hospitals and schools; costs of the drug Naloxone, as well as education, training and use; youth development community programs; medical care and hospitalizations; increased costs of law enforcement; increased costs of prosecutions; and increased costs of incarcerations, according to the suit.

“The citizens in our city, our region and our state are living a nightmare that was avoidable,” Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said in statement. “Profits have been pocketed while our community has been left with the fallout and stigma of the opioid epidemic.”

The city claims each of the defendants played a key role in the creation and continuation of the opioid epidemic in Huntington, which resulted in momentous damages.

In the last six years, 1,728 West Virginians have fatally overdosed on hydrocodone and oxycodone pills, according to the suit. The unregulated shipments amount to 433 pain pills for every man, woman and child in the state of West Virginia.

The defendants each profited, while disregarding the impact that their actions had on the people under the influence of these drugs, according to the suit.

The city claims opioid abuse has triggered a resurgence in heroin use, imposing additional burdens on the city and local agencies to address the heroin use and addiction. On Aug. 17, Huntington experienced 26 heroin overdoses in the span of four hours.

West Virginia had the highest drug-overdose death rate in the United States in 2014, according to a recent Center for Disease Control report. The state also has one of the highest prescription rates of opioids in the country and is ranked in the top 10 concerning prescriptions given out for high-dose opioids and extended-release, both of which are targets for abusers.

The drug distributors knew or should have known that they were supplying vast amounts of dangerous drugs to small markets that were already facing abuse, diversion, misuse and other problems associated with the opioid epidemic, according to the suit.

The city claims the defendants were negligent and violated West Virginia code and were unjustly enriched at the city’s expense.

The city is seeking a temporary restraining order preventing the defendants from violating West Virginia laws; a permanent restraining order preventing the defendants from violating West Virginia laws; and punitive damages for the defendants willful, wanton, malicious, oppressive and intentional acts.

The city is being represented by Charles R. “Rusty” Webb of the Webb Law Centre in Charleston. The case is assigned to Circuit Judge Christopher D. Chiles.

Huntington retained Webb on a contingency fee basis.

“I am honored to represent the City of Huntington in not one, but two major lawsuits," Webb said. "I have an affinity for Huntington since my college days at Marshall University and am very proud of the leadership Steve Williams brings to this great city that has been unfortunately, ground zero on the drug addiction problem in West Virginia.”

The drug companies recently settled with the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office on similar accusations. That lawsuit, which was filed in 2012 in Boone Circuit Court, settled for $47 million.

In December, McDowell County filed a lawsuit against McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal and a Bluefield physician related to the influx of opioids into the county. That lawsuit was filed by the Bell Law Firm of Charleston, the Troy Law Firm of Charleston and Morgan & Morgan of Tampa, Fla.

Several other counties also are considering similar lawsuits. County commissions in Cabell, Mercer and Mingo counties have met with attorneys about possible litigation.

Webb already represents Huntington as co-counsel in an anti-trust lawsuit against West Virginia Paving.

Cabell Circuit Court case number: 17-C-38


West Virginia Record
By: Kyla Asbury and Chris Dickerson

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