Essential reporting in volatile times.

Click here to stay informed and subscribe to the Williamson Daily News.

Click #isupportlocal for more information on supporting our local journalists.

opioids.jpg

A slew of 5-milligram pills of oxycodone sits on a table in this file photo. Attorneys in a lawsuit claiming their clients fueled the region’s opioid crisis are asking that a trial scheduled to start in two weeks be pushed back over fears it could create a “super-spreader” event for COVID-19 in Charleston.

HUNTINGTON — A federal judge has postponed a trial of opioid distributors blamed for creating and fueling the region’s opioid crisis until next year due to COVID-19.

The trial, which had been slated to start Oct. 19, will now start Jan. 4, 2021. It had originally been scheduled for Aug. 31.

It has been nearly four years since Cabell County and Huntington filed suit against the “Big Three” drug distributors — AmerisourceBergen Corp., McKesson and Cardinal Health — claiming they helped create the opioid crisis by pumping millions of pills into the region.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration data show that from 2006 to the end of 2016, West Virginia received 853.5 million prescription pain pills. Of those, 65 million — about 96 per person per year — were distributed in Cabell County, with millions more going to surrounding counties.

The lawsuits state the distributors and others ignored their duty to monitor and report the high number of pills being shipped to the state.

Senior Judge David A. Faber’s ruling for the delay comes after defense attorneys asked for the extension earlier this month over concerns the trial could create a “super-spreader” event with regard to the coronavirus. Paul T. Farrell Jr. of Farrell Law; Paul J. Hanly Jr. of Simmons Hanly Conroy; and Joe Rice of Motley Rice LLC, who represent plaintiffs, said they were ready to proceed with precautions in place.

“In scale and severity, opioid addiction presents one of the gravest public health crises in American history, and it has now been exacerbated further by the COVID-19 pandemic, causing increases in overdoses across the country,” they wrote in a released statement.

Farrell said the plaintiff attorneys had conducted about 150 depositions throughout the summer without one person being exposed to the virus.

“I feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football,” he said. “It’s frustrating because we had sequestered our trial team for weeks to prepare in a ‘COVID bubble’ and had assembled a team of 30 lawyers, paralegals and support staff in Charleston when the plug got pulled.”

In their request for the delay, defense attorneys said it would be irresponsible to hold a 12-week-long trial that could see as many as 200 witnesses from throughout the country testifying. The importance of the trial did not justify risking public health, they wrote.

Attorneys for the city and county said West Virginia and Kanawha County are among the safer places in America and had the second-lowest rate of COVID-19 transmission in the nation this week.

They argued the defendant showed no evidence why January would be a better time than October and said their preference in moving the trial back was “tactical.”

“No one disputes the profound impact of the coronavirus. But its risks should not be exaggerated nor manipulated for self-serving purposes,” they wrote.

“Eventually there will be a reckoning for the damage done to our community,” Farrell said in an interview Friday.

West Virginia’s infection rate for the past week was 69 new cases per 100,000 people, they wrote, and less than 1% of the state has contracted the virus. The positivity rate for Kanawha County, where the trial will be held, fell from 5.65% on Sept. 30 to 3.86% on Oct. 6.

A pretrial hearing set for next week has been postponed as a result of the delay.

Faber is expected to release a longer explanation for the ruling at a later time. The opinion will also set specific trial protocols that will be used to address the virus.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.