An opioid epidemic in a region of West Virginia was not fueled by the three biggest pharmaceutical distributors in the US, a federal judge ruled on Monday.
Attempts by the city of Huntington and Cabell County to compel McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, and Cardinal Health to pay $2.5 billion to address a drug crisis brought on by a flood of addictive pills in their area were rejected by district judge David Faber.
However, after a lengthy trial that came to an end last year, Faber claimed that the companies were not to blame for any opioid oversupply, claiming that the amount of painkillers they sent to pharmacies was determined by doctors’ “good faith” prescription decisions.
While the businesses delivered 51.3 million opioid pills to local retail pharmacies between 2006 and 2014, Faber wrote that “distributing controlled substances to fulfill legally issued prescriptions” is not unreasonable.
The residents of Cabell county and the city of Huntington have suffered greatly as a result of the opioid crisis, he wrote. “And while there is a natural tendency to place blame in these situations, decisions must be made based on the facts and the law, not on sympathy.”
The decision was referred to as “a blow to our city and community” by Huntington’s mayor, Steve Williams. The companies had been coerced by the city to contribute to the cost of opioid treatment programs.
The ruling, which AmerisourceBergen claimed overturned the idea that distributing US Food and Drug Administration-approved medicines to duly licensed healthcare providers could be considered a public nuisance, was well-received by the companies.
In separate statements, Cardinal Health and McKesson claimed that the distributors had kept systems in place to stop the diversion of opioids to illegal channels.
In an effort to hold those and other companies accountable for an opioid abuse epidemic linked to more than 500,000 overdose deaths over the last 20 years, more than 3,300 lawsuits have been filed, mostly by state and local governments.
Last year, the distributors and the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay up to $26 billion to settle the thousands of lawsuits that state and local governments across the nation had filed against them.
However, hard-hit West Virginian communities chose to pursue a greater recovery over joining a federal opioid settlement. On Tuesday, a new trial in state court between distributors and communities in West Virginia will begin.
The verdict on Monday adds to the inconsistent track record for opioid cases that have been tried nationally; courts in Oklahoma and California last year rejected comparable claims against pharmaceutical companies like J&J.
In a case brought by two Ohio counties, a federal jury in November found pharmacy chain owners CVS Health, Walgreens Boots Alliance, and Walmart responsible. In a case brought by the state and two counties, a New York jury determined in December that Teva Pharmaceutical Industries was at fault.