Georgia families' opioid trial begins after COVID delay

A fentanyl user obtains a "safe supply" of opioid alternatives in Vancouver
REUTERS/Jesse Winter
  • Trial is first over opioid claims brought by individual plaintiffs
  • Claims brought under Georgia law allowing lawsuits against drug dealers

(Reuters) - A trial began for the second time Monday in a case brought by families of opioid addicts in Georgia accusing drug distributors Cardinal Health Inc, McKesson Corp and JM Smith Corp of acting as illegal drug dealers.

The case originally went to trial in Glynn County Superior Court last year, but ended in a mistrial three days later after Judge Roger Lane called it off due to rising COVID-19 cases in the region. It was the first trial of opioid claims brought by individual plaintiffs, rather than government entities.

The 21 plaintiffs include children whose parents died of overdoses, a woman whose grandson was born with opioid addiction symptoms and died at one month old, and a woman who was raped as a teenager but received no help from her opioid-addicted mother, plaintiffs' attorney Jim Durham told jurors in his opening statement.

He said the distributors fueled illegal opioid use by filling illegitimate pharmacy orders and failing to report suspicious opioid purchases to law enforcement, as required by the federal Controlled Substances Act. Even though pharmacies and doctors were also to blame for the plaintiffs' family members' addiction, Durham said, the distributors were a crucial link in the chain.

"A pharmacy can't fill a prescription if these distributors are not breaking the law, which they did over and over and over again," he told jurors.

The distributors have denied the allegations, saying they simply fulfilled orders for pills and could not be responsible for illegal prescriptions. Randall Jordan of HunterMacLean, a lawyer for McKesson, told jurors that his client had no way of knowing what prescriptions were being written or filled because of medical privacy laws.

McKesson "has no relationship with individuals," he said.

The trial comes as litigation by more than 3,300 state, local and tribal governments against opioid manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies is winding down, having resulted in more than $50 billion in settlements.

Unlike those lawsuits, which accused the companies of creating a public nuisance by failing to stem the flow of illegal opioids, the Georgia plaintiffs brought their claims under the state's Drug Dealer Liability Act, which allows people injured by illegal drug use to sue dealers.

The distributors have said that they cannot be sued as dealers for filling orders by registered pharmacies.

Prescriptions for opioids rose sharply in the 1990s as companies aggressively promoted the drugs, long used primarily in cancer patients, as a safe way to treat all kinds of chronic pain.

Overdoses involving opioids, including prescription pills and heroin, surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing 38% in 2020 over the previous year and another 15% in 2021, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The case is Poppell v. Cardinal Health Inc, Glynn County Superior Court, No. CE19-00472.

For the plaintiffs: Jim Durham of Griffin Durham Tanner & Clarkson; Benjamin Fox, John Floyd and Manoj Varghese of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore; and Ron Harrison of The Harrison Firm

For McKesson: Randall Jordan of HunterMacLean

For Cardinal Health: Andrew Keyes of Williams & Connolly

For JM Smith: Nicholas Salter of Fox Rothschild

Read more:

Georgia families' opioid case ends in mistrial due to COVID

Georgia families accuse opioid distributors of illegal drug dealing

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Brendan Pierson reports on product liability litigation and on all areas of health care law. He can be reached at