Parkersburg files suit against drug distributors

Seeking compensatory, punitive damages for opioid epidemic

PARKERSBURG — More than 7 million doses of prescription opioids were sold to retailers in Wood County from 2007 to 2012 by five distributors, according to a lawsuit filed this week against the companies on behalf of the City of Parkersburg.

Though no amount is specified, the suit seeks “compensatory and punitive damages from the Defendant Wholesale Distributors for the creation and continuation of a public nuisance,” namely the drug abuse epidemic. It was filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia by attorneys Rusty Webb of Charleston and John D. Hurst of Morgantown.

“The end goal is to pay back the political subdivisions the damages they’ve incurred for the opioids dumped in their districts,” Webb said in a previous interview.

AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation, Cardinal Health Inc., McKesson Corporation, Wal-Mart Stores East LP and Miami-Luken Inc. are named as defendants.

“The repeated filling of suspicious orders, over an extended period of time, in violation of public safety statutes by the Defendant Wholesale Distributors demonstrates wanton, willful, or reckless conduct and/or criminal indifference to civil obligations affecting the rights of others and justifies an award of punitive damages,” the suit says.

Responses by the defendants have yet to be filed.

The suit claims the companies in question have ignored requirements under federal law to inform authorities of suspicious orders, which could include orders of unusual size or frequency or deviating from a normal pattern, and address them. It cites a 2007 letter from the Drug Enforcement Agency to distributors stating that “their responsibility does not end merely with the filing of a suspicious order report” and instructing them to conduct an independent analysis to determine whether the drugs are “likely to be diverted from legitimate channels.”

“The sheer volume of prescription opioids distributed to pharmacies in Parkersburg and surrounding areas (Wood County) is excessive for the medical need of the community and facially suspicious,” the suit says. “Some red flags are so obvious that no one who engages in the legitimate distribution of controlled substances can reasonably claim ignorance of them.”

According to statistics from a DEA database included in the suit, the defendant companies sold more than 1 million doses of hydrocodone and oxycodone to retailers in Wood County each year between 2007 and 2012. The county had a population of 86,596 in the 2010 census.

The suit goes on to claim that the defendant distributors “have refused to recognize any duty beyond reporting only some types of suspicious orders,” citing amicus briefs filed in a 2016 case by the Healthcare Distribution Management Association and National Association of Chain Drug Stores, challenging the requirement to investigate and halt suspicious orders and calling them “intrusive obligations on distributors.”

The suit notes the United States consumes opioid pain relievers “at a greater rate than any other nation” and West Virginia has an opioid pain reliever prescription rate of 137.6 per 100 persons, third highest in the country, with the national average being 82.5.

The state also had the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country in 2011, 2014 and 2015, the suit says.

Parkersburg City Council in February voted unanimously to declare the unlawful distribution of prescription medication a public nuisance and encourage Mayor Tom Joyce’s administration to pursue the lawsuit.

It’s one of multiple suits filed by West Virginia municipalities and counties against drug distributors. More than 300 lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies and distributors are being overseen by a federal judge in Cleveland, and Webb has said he anticipates the Parkersburg case ending up there as well.

Wood County recently engaged the services of a Clarksburg law firm to join in another suit against opioid manufacturers and distributors.