Time is running out for Huntington and Cabell County to make their case in federal court that the nation’s three largest drug distributors fueled the opioid crisis by shipping massive numbers of pain pills to West Virginia.
A third of their witnesses still need to take the stand, and the local governments’ legal team says objections from lawyers for the distributors have slowed down the process. And both sides are navigating a complex case the likes of which has never before been seen: it’s the country’s first trial seeking to hold drug distributors accountable for the crisis.
“I doubt any of us will ever forget this, but I would point out this is the first bellwether trial,” said Anthony Majestro, an attorney representing the county. “The rest of the country is watching this case.”
An enormous amount of money is at stake. The local governments are suing the companies — Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and McKesson — seeking hundreds of millions of dollars to abate the devastation caused by the drug epidemic.
Lawyers for Hunington and Cabell County have eight days left to present their arguments that the companies contributed to the opioid crisis. U.S. District Judge David Faber, who is presiding over the case at the federal courthouse in Charleston, originally granted both sides six weeks to present their arguments. Huntington and Cabell County’s legal team went first, with a deadline of this Friday, June 18.
On Friday, at the request of city and county lawyers, Faber announced an extension. Now, after a break in the trial from June 21 to 25, they will have from June 28 to 30 to wrap up their arguments.
Attorneys clashed last week on whether Faber should grant an extension.
“We’ve invested a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and so have [the companies’ legal teams],” Majestro said. “We think it’s necessary to have this extra time. Given the importance and the complexity of this case to the parties, we believe it’s important for us to be allowed to put on these last witnesses.”
Company lawyers responded that the plaintiffs should reduce their list of remaining witnesses.
“I think the right answer is not to give the plaintiffs some sort of extra time, unlimited extra time if they run over but, rather, to force them to winnow this list down so that there’s good choices being made,” said Timothy Hester, a lawyer for McKesson.
The six weeks that had been set encouraged both parties to make good choices with who they called as witnesses, Hester said.
In the first five weeks, the lawyers for the local governments got through the testimony of 21 witnesses. Katherine Keyes, a Columbia University professor and epidemiologist, began testifying on Friday. After she’s finished, 11 witnesses for the plaintiffs remain, according to a list of witnesses discussed by the legal teams last week.
“They’re all important witnesses,” Majestro said. “We believe they are key to our ability to prove our case.”
Keyes’ testimony is meant to make the case that the supply of opioids is related to problems with illicit drugs like heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl. Company lawyers say a link between the two cannot be proven.
Majestro said most of the remaining witnesses could be questioned by his team quickly.
He said the testimony has gone slower than expected because of the “unprecedented” number of objections made by the distributors’ attorneys. His comment came after a morning of testimony that was swarming with objections.
Joe Rannazzisi, who ran the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Office of Diversion Control from 2005 to 2015, testified over four days last week.
During his time as a DEA administrator, Rannazzisi, a figure who has been the source of numerous national headlines, butted heads with drug distributors.
He led a crackdown against the companies, threatening to pull their licenses if they didn’t follow the law and report suspiciously large orders to the DEA. He retired amid high tensions with pharmaceutical officials and federal lawmakers, who were supporting legislation that would protect the distributors that his office was investigating, Rannazzisi said.
In fewer than 90 minutes on Tuesday morning, defense lawyers objected to his testimony about 30 times, with the majority of objections being overruled by the judge. The two sides later debated whether the city and county should get more time to present their case.
“We’re not saying they don’t have the right to make those objections, but we’re pointing out that the nature of the objections in this trial has lengthened it beyond what we had anticipated,” Majestro said.
The U.S. Justice Department authorized Rannazzisi to testify, though it restricted what he could speak about.
By calling him to the stand, county and city lawyers hoped to show that the DEA had provided guidance to distributors on reporting suspiciously large orders — guidance that Rannazzisi said was ignored.
He said McKesson in 2005 continued to ship large quantities of opioids to alleged internet pharmacies that the DEA had told company officials were showing patterns of suspicious orders. In an 11-day period, McKesson sent a Florida pharmacy 520,000 hydrocodone tablets. He said the company couldn’t explain this.
“I guess you got us,” Rannazzisi said a McKesson official later told him during a meeting.
Defense lawyers pushed back last week, saying the companies did report suspicious orders, and that the DEA did not well-communicate expectations to them. They also tried to discredit Rannazzisi’s retelling of the meeting.