Federal Judge Sides With Opioid Companies In Public Nuisance Suit
The opioid epidemic devastated communities across America, but none more so than rural communities. Among the worst-hit communities were West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountain communities which have long been among the poorest in the nation. Many of these homes still lack fresh water and electricity and are occasionally the subject of horror movies like Wrong Turn and Deliverance. In reality, you are much less likely to get killed in these communities by individuals within the community than individuals within the community are to be killed by opioids.
What’s the problem? A lot of Americans think that drug addiction is the addict’s problem, and they’re right. However, in many of these cases, opioid companies were distributing millions of doses to areas that had populations of a few thousand people or less. In other words, the opioid companies knew what they were doing, destroyed millions of lives, and cost the government millions of dollars. A recent ruling in West Virginia found that the drug companies could not be held liable under public nuisance claims and the government had no right to recover monies dispersed by the public to treat addiction.
Understanding the defense
In this case, the defendants blamed the West Virginia doctors and federal regulations for the opioid crisis. Essentially, they claimed that the doctors were irresponsibly prescribing opioids to their patients and federal regulations permitted them to send 81 million pills over the course of 8 years, so they should not be held accountable for a nuisance created by local doctors and federal regulators. On the basis of WV law, the judge ruled that public nuisance lawsuits generally apply only to property or resources. Hence, the law was tossed. Other states have filed criminal lawsuits against these companies and the companies themselves are being sued by individuals and families whose lives were destroyed by addiction. However, the WV civil prosecutors were unable to establish that the drug companies distributed the pills to pill mills as was prevalent in other similar cases. The plaintiffs would have needed to establish that the defendant’s conduct was unreasonable or illegal. This has been the case in other civil prosecutions against opioid companies and their executives, some of whom are now in prison for their crimes.
One of the key differences between this case (which failed) and the other cases (which succeeded) was that the state focused their efforts on a logistics company that distributed the pills into the area. This company did not market, manufacture, or prescribe the pills. They simply delivered the pills to hospitals and pharmacies. There was limited evidence that the company was involved in diverting the shipments to pill mills or other illegal conduct.
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