Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against drug distributors seeking accountability in the opioid epidemic. A trial currently underway in West Virginia could set the tone for other cases moving forward.
“We have been ground zero. It’s no secret we’re number one in overdose deaths, and recent reports from the National Office of Drug Control Policy indicate that overdose deaths are up across the country. But in West Virginia, they're up by 45 percent just in this last year,” Dr. Susan Bissett, President of the West Virginia Drug Intervention Institute, said.
The state has been hit hard by opioid addiction and overdoses -- it’s something Dr. Bissett has seen firsthand.
“I know friends that tell me they've lost almost half of their kindergarten class. They are adults now, but when they look back, half of their kindergarten class is gone because of overdose,” she said.
It’s a problem the institute she’s in charge of is trying to prevent.
“Naloxone costs a lot of money, recovery costs a lot of money, prevention in our school costs money,” she explained. “It takes enormous resources to address this opioid epidemic.”
The nonprofit does what it can by educating the community on topics like prevention and overdose reversal. Sometimes to young kids, with the help of a talking pill bottle mascot.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 247,000 Americans lost their lives to prescription opioid overdoses from 1999 to 2019. The number climbs to around half a million if you include illegal opioids.
In states like West Virginia, providers wrote more than 69 opioid prescriptions for every 100 people, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2018.
In the capital of Charleston, WV local governments from across the state are suing big pharmaceutical distributors, accusing them of playing a role in this.
“Suing the corporate players in a public health crisis, seeking to get recompensed through the court system for the costs that are imposed on the public health system and the law enforcement system,” Lucinda Finley, Frank Raichle Professor of Law at the University of Buffalo School of Law, said. She has seen the lawsuits pile up across the country.
“There are thousands of lawsuits...more are being filed every day,” she said. “West Virginia has been considered one of the hardest-hit states; therefore, the litigation there I think will play a very significant role in setting a template for litigation in the rest of the country.”
Lawsuits like this help local governments with the cost of fighting the epidemic. A trial between Huntington and Cabell County in West Virginia and three large drug distributors are currently happening in federal court.
“There are a couple of major end goals. One is accountability,” Finley said. “The other goal would be for the municipalities that are suing to try to get some money to help defray the growing costs.”
But the lawsuits don’t directly help those who are addicted or their families.
“If they were a part of creating a problem, they should be a part of solving it,” Cece Brown said. She lost her son Ryan to an overdose following a 7-year addiction.
“He died of a heroin overdose,” she said. “I didn’t think about it until much later, he had come home to get some dental work done, and they gave him pain medicine with codeine in it, and I think about it now whether that impacted that at all. I don’t know.”
The lawsuits will continue to play out in federal court.
“The financial stakes are so high on all sides. There's a very strong incentive on all sides to try to settle the case, to work out what is called global settlements,” Finley explained. “Work out a settlement that would apply to all West Virginia cases, for example or all New York cases.”
Meanwhile, local organizations are continuing to spread awareness.
“We have a responsibility, whether that's personal responsibility, corporate responsibility, to turn this around. Not just for West Virginia but the entire country. We are losing generations of persons due to this opioid epidemic,” Dr. Bissett said.