HUNTINGTON — Although COVID-19 shut West Virginia and federal courts for weeks, Cabell County and Huntington’s lawsuit against drug companies alleging they fueled the opioid epidemic is headed for an Oct. 19 trial.
While defendants AmerisourceBergen Corp., McKesson and Cardinal Health are in the midst of taking sworn testimony from several Cabell County and Huntington officials, the two governments are expected to take depositions from the heads of those companies in the near future, after a ruling made earlier this week.
Cabell County and Huntington’s cases against those “Big Three” drug distributors alleges they helped create the opioid crisis by pumping millions of pills into the region. A settlement offer of $1.25 billion was previously made to those companies, but has not been accepted.
This week, case special master Christopher C. Wilkes granted Huntington and Cabell County’s request to take deposition from Steven H. Collis, the current chairman, president and CEO of AmerisourceBergen, despite the defendant company’s objection, opening the door for the two plaintiffs.
George S. Barrett, former chairman and CEO of Cardinal Health from 2009 to 2017, and John Hammergren, former chairman and CEO of McKesson, are also expected to be questioned.
Cabell County’s attorney, Paul T. Farrell Jr., said AmerisourceBergen could still appeal the decision.
In May 2018, the men testified before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee about their companies’ role in the opioid epidemic and its distribution practices specific to West Virginia.
Farrell said he hopes to expand on that previous testimony by asking questions specific to Cabell County and Huntington.
“Being from Huntington, I have a few follow-up questions following their congressional testimony,” he said. “This was a primary objective of (ours) from the beginning of the litigation, and it’s important for our objective of accountability.
“We think it’s important on behalf of West Virginia that the CEO of the companies that sold the pills answer for their conduct and handling,” he said.
In trying to block the deposition, AmerisourceBergen argued that Collis’ testimony was unnecessary because he does not have unique knowledge of the situation and the information could be obtained by other means, although he had testified to Congress about it voluntarily.
Wilkes said Collis’ deposition was important to resolve issues pending before the court.
“His testimony will directly address many of the cornerstone factual issues the court must decide as the trier of fact in this stipulated bench trial. Mr. Collis’ position on ABDC’s role in the opioid epidemic during his congressional testimony underscores the scope and depth of his knowledge of the factual issue pending before the Court,” Wilkes wrote.
His deposition must be taken within 30 days.
Meanwhile, the defendants have spent several days in Huntington taking depositions from Huntington and Cabell County officials, including current and former Cabell County commissioners, sheriffs, and city fire and police chiefs. Health officials have also been questioned. Huntington Mayor Steve Williams was subpoenaed to answer questions Tuesday.
The depositions are taking place at Mountain Health Arena, with social distancing measures in place, and are expected to take place throughout July.