Washington state, in $95 billion opioid trial, blames drug distributors for crisis

By Nate Raymond

(Reuters) -Washington state’s attorney general on Monday argued that three large drug distributors’ excessive shipments of pain pills helped create the U.S. opioid epidemic, calling it the “worst man-made public health crisis in history,” at the start of a trial seeking $95 billion from the companies.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson made that argument as a trial got underway in the state’s bid to recover more money from the distributors McKesson Corp, Cardinal Health Inc and AmerisourceBergen Corp than it would receive in a $26 billion nationwide settlement.

He said the companies fell short of their legal obligations to operate systems to prevent the diversion of opioids from legitimate uses. They shipped 3.8 billion opioid doses into the state from 2006 to 2018, another lawyer for the state said.

“Indeed, we know they were aware of the harms flowing from their conduct because in private correspondence company executives mocked individuals suffering the painful affects of opioid dependence,” Ferguson said in his opening statement.

As just one example, the state’s lawyers displayed a 2011 email in which an AmerisourceBergen executive parodied the theme song to the TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies” while describing how people drove to obtain drugs at Florida pill mills.

“A Bevy of Pillbillies!” the executive wrote.

Don Migliori, another lawyer for Washington, said a systemic failure by the companies stop suspicious orders of opioids going to pharmacies “proved to be the most influential factor in the development of the opioid addiction crisis in this state.”

He told King County Superior Court Judge Michael Scott, who is presiding over the non-jury trial, that in 2009 alone, Cardinal Health by its own analysis reported just 1.5% of suspicious orders to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Washington is seeking $38.2 billion to fund treatment and other programs and billions more in penalties and forfeited profits. The distributors, who deny wrongdoing, say the state wants a “wildly inflated recovery” of more than $95 billion.

Lawyers for the companies are expected to deliver their own opening statements later on Monday.

The companies deny wrongdoing, arguing the increase in pills was due to rising prescriptions and other factors and that they had systems to prevent drug diversion. They also argue that distributing regulated drugs cannot support a public nuisance claim.

More than 3,300 lawsuits by largely state and local governments have been filed seeking to hold those and other companies responsible for a drug abuse crisis the U.S. government says led to nearly 500,000 opioid overdose deaths over two decades.

Washington state would have been eligible for $527.5 million if it had joined a proposed $26 billion global deal, under which the distributors would pay up to $21 billion https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-opioids-litigation-idTRNIKBN2ER25S and drugmaker Johnson & Johnson would pay $5 billion.

Ferguson, a Democrat, has criticized the settlement as “not nearly good enough,” saying the nearly $30 million on average the state and its communities would receive annually was insufficient to address the devastation caused by the epidemic.

The state became one of eight not to participate https://www.reuters.com/article/usa-opioids-litigation-idTRNIKBN2G00J1 in the distributors’ nationwide accord and opted to proceed to trial.

Plaintiffs in some of the other opioid cases have recently faced setbacks pursuing nuisance claims.

Oklahoma’s top court on Tuesday overturned a $465 million judgment https://www.reuters.com/business/oklahoma-court-overturns-465-million-opioid-award-against-johnson-johnson-2021-11-09 against J&J, and a California judge this month ruled in favor of four drugmakers in a case brought by several large counties.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston;Editing by Noeleen Walder, Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler)

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