Judge rules drug distributers not liable for opioid crisis in West Virginia

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A federal judge ruled that three of the largest distributors of opioids in the United States can’t be held liable for the crisis the drugs created in a West Virginia city and county.

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Cabell county and the city of Huntington had argued that McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health should be liable for the opioid crisis because they ignored evidence that the medications were being used illegally, The Wall Street Journal reported. The plaintiffs had asked for more than $1 billion in damages.

In his ruling, Judge David Faber said that “The opioid crisis has taken a considerable toll on the citizens of Cabell County and the City of Huntingdon. 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,” WSAZ reported. The judge argued that causation wasn’t proven in the case, and that there was only one case of “pharmacy-level diversion,” according to WSAZ.

While plaintiffs had argued that the companies brought more than 127 million painkillers into the county’s pharmacies, Judge Faber said there was no evidence the companies failed to put “effective controls” in place, Bloomberg reported.

The judge argued that doctors overprescribing the medications, pharmacists dispensing excessive prescriptions and diverting the drugs to illegal uses were all “intervening causes beyond the control of the defendants,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

West Virginia’s attorney general opted out of a national settlement with the same distributors, with the addition of Johnson & Johnson, for $21 billion, Bloomberg reported. At the time, West Virginia lawmakers argued that the settlement did not provide enough for local governments dealing with the crisis.

“Pharmaceutical distributors like AmerisourceBergen have been asked to walk a legal and ethical tightrope between providing access to necessary medications and acting to prevent diversion of controlled substances,” Gabriel Weissman, a company spokesman, said to Bloomberg in a statement. “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.”

In a statement to Bloomberg, McKesson officials said they maintain “strong programs designed to detect and prevent opioid diversion within the pharmaceutical supply chain.”

In a statement, Huntington mayor Steve Williams told The Wall Street Journal he was disappointed in the ruling, saying, “These companies were part of a powerful industry responsible for fueling the epidemic here in Huntington and across the country.”

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