Citing “a dangerous new phase” of the coronavirus pandemic in West Virginia and elsewhere, the nation’s largest prescription drug distributors asked a federal judge this week to postpone an upcoming trial in Charleston that seeks to hold the companies accountable for the opioid epidemic.

The wholesale drug distributors — McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen — say starting the trial on Oct. 19 would be irresponsible and subject “hundreds of people to unnecessary risk.” The companies suggest that the trial be put off until early January.

The trial involves the Cabell County Commission and City of Huntington, which are among thousands of local governments that have sued the distributors, alleging that the companies fueled the opioid crisis by shipping massive numbers of prescription painkillers to the region. The wholesalers deny any wrongdoing.

The distributors asked U.S. District Judge David Faber to decide whether to call off the trial by the end of this week. A pre-trial conference has been scheduled for Oct. 14.

In their motion to delay the trial, the drug distributors’ lawyers say Kanawha County’s COVID-19 cases have recently soared, with an infection rate 20 times higher than when the trial date was originally set in May. 

“It is untenable and unduly risky to commence a 12-week trial involving scores of participants in a county where the COVID-19 rate is so persistently high that officials are requesting field hospitals,” the companies’ lawyers wrote. The lawyers added that the trial could become a “super-spreader” event. 

As many as 200 witnesses might be called to testify. Many of them would be traveling to West Virginia from other states. Dozens of lawyers also are expected to attend.

Lawyers for Cabell County could not immediately be reached for comment. Huntington’s attorney, Rusty Webb, declined comment. In the past, those lawyers have criticized the companies for requesting unwarranted delays.

In their motion filed Monday, the distributors said they were not using COVID-19 as an excuse to delay the trial, which is scheduled to start in less than two weeks at the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse in downtown Charleston.

This story has been updated to include a response from Huntington’s attorney.

Eric Eyre, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting in 2017 for stories on the opioid crisis, is a senior investigative reporter at Mountain State Spotlight. He is the author of Death...