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A federal judge rejected claims that the three largest US opioid distributors ignored warning signs when they sent millions of pills to a West Virginia community, handing a rare trial win for companies linked to the drug epidemic.

US District Judge David Faber said in an opinion Monday McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Corp. didn’t create a public nuisance in Cabell County, West Virginia, and its largest city, Huntington. The plaintiffs alleged between 2006 and 2014, the companies delivered more than 127 million painkillers to pharmacies in the county — or about 142 pills annually for each man, woman and child in the area.

The judge concluded the local governments didn’t prove the distributors failed to put in place “effective controls” against opioids being diverted to illegal uses and couldn’t properly hold the companies accountable for billions of dollars in harms tied to the painkillers under state law.

The federal judge conceded in his 184-page ruling that the “opioid crisis has taken a considerable toll on the citizens of Cabell County and the City of Huntington, And while there is a natural tendency to assign blame in such cases, they must be decided not based on sympathy, but on the facts and the law.”

In the Cabell County case, lawyers argued the distributors ignored warning signs about excessive opioid orders from West Virginia pharmacies.

“We are deeply disappointed personally and for the citizens of Cabell County and the city of Huntington,- lawyers for the West Virginia local governments said in a statement. “We felt the evidence that emerged from witness statements, company documents, and extensive datasets showed these defendants were responsible for creating and overseeing the infrastructure that flooded West Virginia with opioids.”

Faber’s ruling reinforces arguments Cardinal Health’s lawyers made, Eric Timmerman, a company spokesman, said in a statement. The judge found the firm properly provides a “secure channel to deliver medications of all kinds from manufacturers to our thousands of hospital and pharmacy customers that dispense them to their patients based on doctor-ordered prescriptions.”

“Pharmaceutical distributors like AmerisourceBergen have been asked to walk a legal and ethical tightrope between providing access to necessary medications and acting to prevent diversion of controlled substances,” Gabriel Weissman, a company spokesman, said in a statement. “Today’s ruling will help enable our company to do what we do best — ensuring that health care facilities like hospitals and community pharmacies have access to the medications that patients and care providers need.”

The case is City of Huntington v. AmerisourceBergen, 17-cv-1362, US District Court, Southern District of West Virginia.

Bloomberg News reports that  West Virginia has been among the hardest-hit states in the opioid epidemic, with Cabell County’s overdose death rate more than five times the national average during the period covered by the suit, according to researchers. West Virginia officials opted out of a settlement with the distributors last year, arguing it didn’t provide for their local governments still battling the scourge.

In that settlement, McKesson, based in Irving, Texas, Cardinal Health, of Dublin, Ohio, and AmerisourceBergen, of Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, agreed to pay $21 billion to settle the vast majority of the thousands of opioid lawsuits filed by states and local governments across the US.

The strategy of suing opioid companies by alleging public nuisance has had a mixed track record. An Orange County Superior Court Judge, in November 2021, ruled in favor of four pharmaceuticals (including Endo and Teva) after a bench trial in a lawsuit brought by the counties Santa Clara, Los Angeles and Orange and the city of Oakland. That same month, an Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned a $465 Million ruling against Johnson & Johnson, rejecting the public nuisance argument.

However, juries that heard cases have backed nearly identical allegations in New York state court against opioid maker Teva Pharmaceuticals and in federal court in Ohio against pharmaceutical chains including CVS Health Corp.

San Francisco’s opioid lawsuit against Walgreens and a number of pharmaceutical companies commenced a court trial at the end of April, 2022. Lawyers for San Francisco claims that Anda, Allergan, Teva and Walgreens promoted and distributed the powerful painkillers in ways that created a public nuisance that endangered the health and safety of the city’s residents. The case is still underway as of the end of June, 2022.