A federal judge in West Virginia sided with three major U.S. drug distributors on Monday, ruling that the drug companies can't be held responsible for the addiction epidemic in Cabell County after flooding the are with opioids. U.S. District Judge David Faber issued his 184-page ruling nearly a year after lawyers for Cabell County and the drug companies — AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson — concluded a three-month bench trial in Faber's court.
The three drug companies distributed 81 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to Cabell County over an eight-year period ending in 2014, a quantity that works out to 94 pills for each adult and child every year. Lawyers for the county argued that the drug distributors acted unreasonably, recklessly, and without regard for public health and safety, ignoring red flags that their "tsunami" of pills were being funneled to the black market as the area wrestled with a growing opioid-fueled addiction crisis.
Lawyers for the drug companies countered that they were only fulfilling orders from licensed pharmacies based on prescriptions written by doctors. Judge Faber agreed, writing that while "the opioid crisis has taken a considerable toll on the citizens of Cabell County and the city of Huntington," cases such as this one "must be decided not based on sympathy, but on the facts and the law," and the plaintiffs did not prove the companies violated public nuisance laws or tie the companies' conduct to the harm in the communities.
The use of public nuisance laws in opioid cases has had mixed results across the country, but this was the first one involving opioid distributors to end up at federal trial, The Associated Press reports. "The result could have huge effects on similar lawsuits." The plaintiffs said they are "deeply disappointed" with the ruling and may file an appeal. Drug overdose deaths hit a new nationwide high in 2021, and Cabell County reported significantly higher numbers of emergency responses to suspected overdoses compared with previous years.