(Reuters) – The three largest US drug dealers are facing trial Monday in West Virginia in a lawsuit accusing them of fueling the opioid crisis that has caused 500,000 overdose deaths in the United States over two decades.
The lawsuit alleges that AmerisourceBergen Corp., McKesson Corp. and Cardinal Health Inc. ignored red flags indicating that opioids were diverted to illegal channels, flooding the state with hundreds of millions of highly addictive pills.
Huntington, a city in West Virginia devastated by opioids and Hair County, is expected to seek more than $ 1 billion to repair opioid damage.
Distributors have said they cannot be held responsible for fulfilling orders for drugs prescribed by doctors. They have also argued that the plaintiffs’ legal theory of public nuisance, most commonly used for damage to public property, such as roads or water supply, does not apply to opioids.
“AmerisourceBergen is looking forward to sharing with the Court the facts about our role in the supply chain and our long-standing commitment to fulfilling our regulatory responsibilities and our part in combating the opioid crisis,” AmerisourceBergen said in a statement.
McKesson and Cardinal declined to comment on the case.
The trial without a jury before U.S. District Judge David Faber in Charleston comes after Huntington and Cabell, along with other West Virginia cities and counties, opted for a $ 26 billion nationwide deal with the three distributors and drug manufacturer Johnson & Johnson. This agreement has not been finalized.
A verdict could help lay the groundwork for settlements in the full national litigation over the opioid crisis.
Opioids have killed nearly 500,000 people in overdoses in the United States from 1999 to 2019, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. West Virginia is among the hardest hit states, recording more opioid prescriptions and overdose deaths per capita than any other in 2018, according to data from the National Institutes of Health.
Next week’s trial comes as nationwide opioid litigation picks up strength after being stopped for a year by the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are more than 3,300 local government lawsuits pending against opioid manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies. Many are consolidated before an Ohio federal judge, who has appointed some, including the Huntington case, for trial in hopes of encouraging a broader agreement.
The first trial after pandemic delays began earlier this month in a case filed by California counties against J&J and other drug manufacturers. Another is expected in New York in June.
Distributors went on trial almost once before, against two Ohio counties in 2019, but eventually settled for $ 215 million.