West Virginia opioid trial postponed after defendants' federal court victory

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REUTERS/George Frey

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(Reuters) - A West Virginia state court trial over lawsuits brought by cities and counties in the state accusing drug distributors of fueling the deadly opioid epidemic has been postponed, a day after the distributors won a federal court case that raised similar claims.

Scheduled to kick off on Tuesday, the trial was set to test the local governments' allegations against McKesson Corp, AmerisourceBergen Corp and Cardinal Health Inc, the country's three largest pharmaceutical distributors. The cities and counties, whose lawsuits were consolidated by a state court mass litigation panel, alleged the companies flooded West Virginia with opioid pills and failed to ensure that pills were prescribed only for legitimate medical use.

No new date has been set for the state court trial.

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The three companies, along with Johnson & Johnson, finalized a $26 billion settlement in February to resolve more than 3,000 lawsuits by state and local governments over the opioid epidemic, which resulted in 80,000 overdose deaths in 2021 alone, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

West Virginia was not part of the $26 billion deal because of earlier settlements with the three companies, but those settlements covered only state claims and those of the local governments.

West Virginia's Cabell County and City of Huntington had raised similar allegations in a federal lawsuit that was decided Monday. U.S. District Judge David Faber rejected efforts by the local governments to force the three distributors to pay $2.5 billion to address the opioid crisis in their region, following a months-long trial that ended last year.

Faber found that there was "nothing unreasonable" about the companies' sale of opioids to fulfill legally written prescriptions, and that the companies had "substantially complied" with their obligation to track and report suspicious drug orders.

The three drug distributors have largely settled government lawsuits related to the opioid crisis. They have not admitted wrongdoing.

AmerisourceBergen said Tuesday that the companies "have been asked to walk a legal and ethical tightrope between providing access to necessary medications and acting to prevent diversion of controlled substances." Cardinal Health declined to comment on the trial postponement and McKesson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The postponed trial would have been the second opioid trial in West Virginia this year, after a trial on the state's claims against drugmakers Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd, Endo International PLC and AbbVie Inc's Allergan business unit. The state reached settlements with all four drugmaker defendants before closing arguments in the trial, with Teva and Allergan agreeing to pay $161.5 million, Johnson & Johnson paying $99 million, and Endo paying $26 million.

The case is In re: Opioid Litigation (distributors), Circuit Court of Kanawha County West Virginia, No. 21-C-9000.

For the plaintiffs: Anne McGinness Kearse of Motley Rice; Paul Farrell and Michael Fuller of Farrell & Fuller; and Pearl Robertson of Irpino, Avin & Hawkins

For McKesson: Paul Schmidt and Timothy Hester of Covington & Burling

For AmerisourceBergen: Shannon McClure and Michael Salimbene of Reed Smith

For Cardinal Health: Jennifer Wicht and George Borden of Williams & Connolly

Read more:

U.S. drug distributors prevail in $2.5 billion West Virginia opioid case

Oklahoma reaches $250 mln opioid settlement with drug distributors

J&J settles West Virginia opioid litigation for $99 million

Drug distributors, J&J agree to finalize $26 bln opioid settlement

Teva, Allergan reach $161.5 mln opioid settlement with West Virginia

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