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Frustration mounts as local opioid cases stall with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line

CHARLESTON — The city of Huntington and Cabell County inched closer to trial Monday as attorneys in an opioid lawsuit blaming several drug firms for fueling the opioid epidemic in local West Virginia communities met in Charleston for the first time in three years in hopes of setting a trial date.

The two local governments were among the first to file the cases against drug firms alleging neglect, but after the number of cases made with similar claims ballooned into more than 2,500 cases nationally, the cases were sent to Cleveland-based Judge Dan Polster, who was charged with sorting out pre-trial issues before sending the cases back to their home districts for trial.

While the cases were sent back to West Virginia earlier this month by Polster after he said he felt the cases were close to being ready for trial, the attorneys said at a hearing Monday they remain far apart on how they view the future of the case.

The lawsuits argue the Big Three defendants — AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp., McKesson and Cardinal Health — breached their duty to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders of prescription opiates coming into the states over the past several years — a duty the lawsuits claim companies have under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

From 2006 to 2014, 1.1 billion pain pills were supplied to West Virginia, with 261 million coming from Cardinal Health, 172 million from McKesson and 169 million from AmerisourceBergen. Cabell County received about 81 million of those.

As the number of pills sent to the state decreased over the years, those who developed drug dependency issues turned to illicit street drugs, like heroin.

The lawsuit seeks payment to help remedy the problems drug dependency allegedly has caused in the area.

Upon receiving the case back from Polster, District Judge David A. Faber said he was told it was almost ready to go to trial, and he summoned the cases’ attorneys back to Charleston for Monday’s hearing.

Among issues discussed, the sides argued when a trial should take place; whether it should be decided by a judge or jury; how long evidence exchange should take; and whether Polster’s previous ruling’s are binding now the case is back in West Virginia.

It was expected a trial date would be set Monday, but the decision was delayed until March to give sides time to make written arguments.

Cabell County’s attorney Paul T. Farrell Jr. said he was ready for a trial to start in March. The plaintiffs requested a bench trial, which means a judge would be the decider, and that the trial would take place over the next year, taking up one week of each month with different focus each week.

However, the defense argued they were nowhere near being ready for trial and refused to waive their right to a jury trial. They said they had not received much evidence from the plaintiffs in the case and requested 18 months for evidence exchange.

McKesson attorney Mark Lynch said the drug companies needed time for large discovery exchange because the blame, if any, lies with several entities, not just the three on trial.

“There are a lot of entities that share responsibility, and we need time to build that story,” he said.

Farrell said he could finish getting the evidence to the defense in 30 days.

The defense said there was no “universe in which he could produce those documents in 30 days,” but Farrell said his staff had been working long hours at the courthouse to digitize documents to turn them over to the other side.

Attorney Charles “Rusty” Webb, who represents the city of Huntington, said the case is ready to go.

“If he says we can do it (in 30 days), we can do it,” he said.

“This is a delay in justice,” Farrell said of the defense’s request, to which Lynch responded the defense wasn’t looking for “delay for the sake of delay.”

The defense argued the evidence exchange while under Polster’s watch was “one sided” and the drug firms had received barely anything they needed in regard to the local case and questioned whether Polster’s rulings would even be binding in the West Virginia court, essentially wanting time to repeat motions for Faber to decide instead.

Farrell said the case could last forever if the judge let it, adding nothing new had been stated at Monday’s hearing that hadn’t been said before.

“There’s always going to be a reason a case isn’t ready for trial,” he said.

Farrell also argued Faber could overrule the defense and order there be a bench trial after the defense refused to waive their right to a jury trial.

Faber asked the parties to submit briefs on their respective stances about the trial date and the jury vs. judge issue within 10 days. He also requested the sides submit a “case management” order within two weeks to help determine how it will move forward.

The judge also set a return date for March 1, at which time he said he would set a trial date. Faber added the trial date would be set “nowhere near” 18 months away like the defense requested.

By the end of the hearing, Faber noted his disappointment that Monday’s hearing had not gotten them closer to trial.

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams attended Monday’s hearing, alongside Cabell County Administrator Beth Thompson and county commissioner Kelli Sobonya.

Williams said he didn’t care whether it was a jury or bench trial; he just wants the facts to get out there. The defense even took note of the raging opioid epidemic at Monday’s hearing, he said, which is a step toward.

“They already stated the problem is much worse here (than the Ohio cases),” he said. “So it’s been stipulated on the record.”

The three companies settled last fall with Cuyahoga and Summit counties in Ohio for $215 million in the final hour before the first trial was set to begin.

Webb said he felt Monday’s hearing was promising for the plaintiffs and showed the judge also wants the case to move forward quickly.

Our Lady of Fatima kicks off Catholic Schools Week with visit from Cathy Justice

HUNTINGTON — Students at Our Lady of Fatima Parish School in Huntington celebrated the first day of Catholic Schools Week on Monday afternoon with a visit from Cathy Justice, first lady of West Virginia.

Justice spent time reading to elementary-level children and spoke with middle-schoolers about the importance of education and their goals for the future.

“We love the students; this is our future,” Justice said. “We want to instill in all the students of West Virginia to be proud of themselves, to be the very best they can be.”

Justice also encouraged students to embrace their West Virginia roots, reading “M is for Mountain State: A West Virginia Alphabet” by Mary Ann McCabe Riehle, which took the kids on an alphabetized-tour through the state’s famous landmarks and prominent figures.

“If they say they’re from West Virginia, we want them to be proud that that’s where they’re from and make the very best of it,” Justice said.

Randall Reid-Smith, a former opera singer and curator of the state’s Department of Arts, Culture and History, led students in a rendition of John Denver’s “Country Roads” before they headed back to class.

Micah O’Connor, principal at the school, said the staff works hard to localize lessons students are learning by bringing public figures to the school, not only during celebratory weeks, but on a regular basis.

“We want the kids to be familiar with figures in the state of West Virginia, and we want them to be familiarized with government figures,” O’Connor said. “They study these figures in social studies, they talk about them and hear their names, but they don’t know who they really are, so we wanted to put a face with the name.”

Catholic Schools Week is observed annually during the last week of January nationwide, and acts as a “homecoming week” for Our Lady of Fatima school, O’Connor said.

“One day we celebrate the students, we celebrate families, we celebrate the nation, we celebrate our parish, and the students get to have special activities that go along with this,” O’Connor said. “There’s a special theme each day of the week.”

Monday, students and teachers dressed as characters from their favorite book, TV show or movie for Justice’s visit.

Pajama day, decade day, crazy hat and sock day and school spirit day also will take place throughout the week, along with an annual volleyball game between the teachers and eighth-grade students on Friday and the Catholic Classic basketball tournament.

Placards to identify vacant houses in Huntington after council's OK

HUNTINGTON — All structures listed on Huntington’s vacant building registry will now require their owners’ names and contact information be displayed on them following an ordinance approved by the City Council Monday night.

Council members unanimously approved the second-reading of an ordinance that updates the city’s current vacant building ordinance, which requires homes vacant for more than 210 consecutive days be registered to the city with an annual fee. The amended ordinance requires the name of the building’s owner, the owner’s new address and phone number, if available, be displayed on each of the 700 buildings currently on the registry.

Huntington Attorney Scott Damron said the ordinance is modeled after a similar program in Chicago, which requires a red X be on buildings deemed structurally hazardous to first responders.

“It seems to be working very well there,” he said. “It will assist the first responders, it will keep the building owners from being anonymous and also provide some public information for people living in the neighborhoods to know who actually owns these buildings that are vacant.”

The placards will be prepared by the Public Works Department’s sign division. They will be paid for by the city, which will be a “nominal” expense because the city already has the ability and materials to print them, Damron said previously.

Buildings newly listed on the registry will receive a placard after 30 days. Homes that are actively for sale or under renovation are not required to be placed on the registry, he said.

Owners may register their properties as vacant after 30 days with a one-time registration fee. Doing so excludes them from paying the city’s monthly refuse fee. After that, owners are required to pay a fee for each year their property is listed on the registry to cover the expense of police and fire protection. Code enforcement officers may also list a building on the registry if they are made aware of it being vacant.

Also Monday, council members approved a resolution to purchase three new Harley Davidson Road King motorcycles for the Huntington Police Department. Interim Chief Ray Cornwell said the motorcycles will be purchased from Black Sheep Harley Davidson, of Huntington, for $16,929 each. Compared to the equivalent civilian model, he said there’s a savings of $2,500 per bike.

The department currently has a fleet of six motorcycles, which range in age from 2000 models to 2016 models. Two of those bikes are no longer road-worthy and are unsafe to drive, he said.

During his report to council members, Mayor Steve Williams announced a tentative date for his annual State of the City Address. Williams said he is planning on delivering the address at 10 a.m. Feb. 14. Williams will discuss progress in the city, his vision of the future and present his proposed budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year to City Council.