June Leffler Published

Journalist Eric Eyre On Cabell County, Huntington’s Case Against Drug Distributors

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Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against big drug companies for their alleged role in the opioid epidemic. These lawsuits almost never make it to court, with both sides opting to settle. But that’s not the case with Cabell County and the City of Huntington. They are half way through an unlikely federal trial against three big drug distributors.

Journalist Eric Eyre has watched this case for two months, covering proceedings for Mountain State Spotlight. He also won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for his coverage of the proliferation of pain pills in West Virginia, which is chronicled in his book “Death in Mudlick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic.”

June Leffler spoke to Eyre about the trial so far.

This conversation was lightly edited for clarity.

Leffler: Cabell County and the city of Huntington’s case against AmerisourceBergen, McKesson and Cardinal Health is being called a landmark trial. But it seems like distributors and manufacturers are in constant litigation, we’re hearing this in the news all the time. Could you remind listeners why this trial is special?

Eyre: It’s the first federal case of the 3000 lawsuits to go to trial against the distributors, and some are against the manufacturers. So this is the sort of the first day of reckoning for the distributors, and it’s the first chance for a city and a county to hold these distributors accountable for the opioid crisis.

Leffler: Do we know why Cabell County and the city of Huntington did not opt to settle?

Eyre: They felt there wasn’t enough money being offered. And I don’t know the exact amount that was offered by the distributors. There was a national settlement, a $26 billion national settlement that the city of Huntington and Cabell County could have taken part in. That settlement still hasn’t been finalized. But the lead lawyer for the county and the city, Paul Farrell, said their cut of that would not have been enough money.

Leffler: Can you briefly describe what case the city and county are making?

Eyre: They’re making the argument that what started with this flood of prescription drugs served as a gateway to other drugs, heroin in particular. They’re accusing the drug distributors of not necessarily starting the epidemic, but fueling the epidemic. When there were these large numbers of pills being ordered by pharmacies, the distributors looked the other way and kept shipping, to basically make a lot of money. And the plaintiffs felt that they should have flagged these, what they call suspicious shipments of opioids, to pharmacies across the county.

Leffler: And as far as the defense, they say they’re just the middlemen. So who else do they think is at fault?

Eyre: They’re mostly pointing the finger at the doctors. They say every prescription that was written was written by a licensed doctor. There’s a little bit of shifting the blame to the pharmacies, but they’re careful about that, because the pharmacies are their customers. So they don’t want to get in bad graces with pharmacies. They also blame the Drug Enforcement Administration, saying they could have limited the amount of opioids in the country by setting lower quotas, and that the DEA failed to notify them when they had access to the same data that distributors had. Distributors have been reluctant to blame the manufacturers for years because they do business with the manufacturers. But now they’ve really turned their sights on one manufacturer in particular, Purdue Pharma, which is the maker of Oxycontin. The company has declared bankruptcy. So the defense keeps saying these drugs were marketed by Purdue Pharma falsely, Oxycontin was marketed as non-addictive. And Purdue Pharma surely played a huge role in the opioid epidemic. But as some people have told me, if you have a bank robbery you have somebody that goes into the bank and holds a gun or hands the teller a note, but then you also have somebody that drives the getaway car. And just because you drive the getaway car doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for the bank robbery.

Leffler: You’ve become well versed in how these distributors operate. And the scale at which they’ve shipped prescription opioids. I’m wondering after watching this trial for almost two months, what information has been presented that is memorable to you?

Eyre: Well, I think it’s the totality of just the devastation that’s been caused by the opioid crisis, the amount of money needed to abate the issue . On the plus side, I’ve learned that the city of Huntington and Cabell County have done many of the right things to address the crisis. Although, that’s being played up by the defense saying “You guys have done a fantastic job. So you don’t need any money from us.” But the problem is not going to go away next week. Another thing the distributors are saying is that when, not necessarily Cabell and Huntington, but when West Virginia has gotten previous grants from the federal government, we’ve been very slow to spend them. Our Department of Health and Human Resources was ranked last in terms of one particular federal grant that went out to address the opioid crisis. It took them three years just to spend 30% of the money. Now, I would attribute that not necessarily to a lack of need, but probably the problem is more bureaucracy within the DHHR.

Leffler: If the city and the county think that $10 million to $15 million isn’t enough, how much are they hoping to get if they win?

Eyre: Well, their testimony from their witnesses says $2.6 billion. I’ve heard numbers a lot lower than that. But I do know, they’re not going to take the proportion that would have been awarded if they were part of a national settlement. And I think that was going to be maybe $10 million or $11 million. But they run the risk. They could wind up with nothing. They really are an incredible team of high priced lawyers that are representing the distributors. These are some of the largest companies, they’re all in the top 20 of the Fortune 500. They have unlimited resources. And they can’t deal with a $2 billion verdict or award. And if you do that in Cabell County, then there would be the likelihood that would be extrapolated over the entire state of West Virginia and then over the country. And you would literally bankrupt the distributors if you give a county with 90,000 people $2 billion.

Leffler: Is there any potential for this case to settle?

Eyre: Well, I’m the guy who said that it would settle back before it started. I wouldn’t have bet my house on it. But these cases typically always settle. And, frankly, it’s in the best interest of people with opioid use disorder that need help that they do settle, because if the trial goes on, there’s going to be appeals, and then you have the appellate courts, and from there to the Supreme Court, and then you’re looking at another 10 years. It’s already been four years since the suit was filed. And the opioid crisis keeps changing, the drugs are changing, maybe now we should call it more of an addiction crisis. So from my standpoint, reach a fair settlement. Get the money to the people that need it in treatment, and then move on.

And I wanted to say that people always ask me about the judge. And his name is David Faber. He’s a U.S. District Judge. And so far, I think he’s been extremely fair, extremely patient. There’s times when the trial gets very tedious. And he is helping move it along. I have confidence that the judge will make a fair and reasonable decision at the end of the day.

Leffler: You are largely known for reporting on prescription opioid distributors and their dealings in the state. Your outlet, Mountain State Spotlight, has dedicated one to two reporters to sit in court every day of this trial. So that’s a lot of focus and resources put into this one topic. Why have you followed this so relentlessly?

Eyre: As you listen to the testimony, we still have babies being born dependent. We have a foster care system that’s a mess because of the opioid crisis. You have grandparents raising their grandchildren, because in some cases, both parents of a child have died of an opioid overdose. Jail costs and treatment costs are going through the roof. You see these movies that come out, and they have somebody go into withdrawal for like three days and all of a sudden they’re done. They’re no longer addicted. Well, that doesn’t happen. It’s usually a three to five year recovery process, then they have to deal with it for the rest of their lives. If you live here, which a lot of these lawyers on both sides don’t live here, but if you live here, you probably know either a co-worker or a family member or a neighbor that’s had some issue with opioid use disorder, and all the devastation that the crisis has caused in the state.