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Sixty West Virginia counties, cities, towns and hospitals will have to wait more than a year to have a panel of judges hear their lawsuits that seek to recoup costs stemming from the opioid crisis.

The panel on Tuesday moved the trial’s start date from March 2021 to the following November, citing the coronavirus pandemic. It’s the second time in recent days that an opioid lawsuit trial in West Virginia has been postponed. 

The local governments and hospitals are suing chain pharmacies, drug manufacturers and drug distributors, alleging the companies saturated communities with an excessive number of prescription pain pills and failed to ensure the opioid painkillers didn’t end up in the wrong hands.

Last month, the drug companies asked West Virginia’s “Mass Litigation Panel” — set up by the state Supreme Court — to delay the trial six months. The opioid manufacturers and distributors also accused the local governments of being slow to turn over documents.

“Put simply, the disruption caused by COVID-19 has delayed the advancement of this case to the point of making the trial date unworkable,” the companies’ lawyers told the panel in a court filing. 

The hospitals, cities and counties asked the judges’ panel to keep the March trial date. 

They said the pandemic has exacerbated the opioid epidemic, making it necessary to hold the trial sooner rather than later. There are preliminary signs that drug overdoses have soared in recent months. West Virginia already has the highest overdose death rate in the nation.

“It is clear that a resolution of [our] claims is now even more urgent than before,” attorneys representing 34 local governments and 26 hospitals told the panel.

The drug distributors being sued include McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen. Those companies agreed to pay a combined $72 million to settle lawsuits with the state of West Virginia in recent years, but hospitals, counties and cities across the state filed their own separate suits. 

Opioid manufacturers being sued include Teva, Johnson & Johnson, and Cephalon. Johnson & Johnson disclosed Tuesday that it had agreed to pay $5 billion to settle hundreds of lawsuits —which presumably would include the West Virginia cases—filed against it, according to Law360, an online legal news outlet.

Pharmacies named in the West Virginia lawsuits are Walgreens, CVS, Walmart and Kroger.

The lawsuits — filed by hospitals that include Charleston Area Medical Center and West Virginia University Hospitals, along with counties such as Wood, Harrison, Ohio, Jackson and Monongalia — have been consolidated and are being heard by the judges’ panel at the Kanawha County Courthouse in Charleston. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office also is a plaintiff. 

The lawsuits allege the companies’ actions caused a “public nuisance,” forcing local governments and hospitals to lose revenue and pay untold expenses amid the addiction crisis.

Last week, a federal judge postponed another major opioid trial, which pits the Cabell County Commission and the City of Huntington against McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmeriSourceBergen — the nation’s three largest prescription drug distributors. The trial was scheduled to start next week but got pushed back to January.

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...