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4th Circuit Sends WV City's Opioid Case to State High Court

4th Circuit Sends WV City's Opioid Case to State High Court

4th Circuit Sends WV City's Opioid Case to State High Court

Introduction

A U.S. appeals court has referred a $2.5 billion lawsuit brought by a West Virginia city and county against major drug distributors over the opioid crisis to the state's highest court.

The city of Huntington and Cabell County sought to overturn a lower court's dismissal of their case, arguing that the distributors, including McKesson, Cardinal Health, and Cencora (formerly AmerisourceBergen), flooded the region with opioids, creating a "public nuisance." However, the appeals panel ruled that the West Virginia Supreme Court must address a key legal question: whether distributors can be held liable under state law for such conduct.

The plaintiffs alleged that the distributors' actions led to the shipment of approximately 81 million opioid pills to Cabell County, which has a population of fewer than 100,000, over an eight-year period. They argued that the distributors failed to heed red flags indicating illicit sales, thereby contributing to an epidemic of overdoses and crime.

Huntington and Cabell sought a $2.5 billion plan to address the public nuisance, including funding for addiction treatment and overdose prevention programs. In 2022, a U.S. District Judge ruled against Huntington and Cabell, stating that West Virginia's public nuisance law only covered conduct directly damaging public property or resources, not harm caused by drug sales. 

The appeals court's decision to seek clarification from the state's highest court hinges on interpreting state law regarding public nuisance. Senior Circuit Judge emphasized that the case's revival depends on the interpretation of West Virginia law, particularly whether it encompasses harm resulting from opioid sales.

The opioid crisis has been devastating, with nearly 645,000 overdose deaths involving opioids recorded in the United States from 1999 to 2021, according to the CDC. West Virginia has been particularly hard hit, experiencing the highest per capita overdose death rate nationwide.

The referral of this lawsuit to the state's highest court underscores the legal complexities surrounding accountability for the opioid epidemic and the need for clarity in interpreting relevant state laws.

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