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Local opioid cases sent back to W.Va court for trial

HUNTINGTON — Nearly three years after the first lawsuits were filed alleging that several drug manufacturers fueled the opioid epidemic in Huntington and Cabell County, they are expected to be sent back to West Virginia by a federal judge to be set for trial in a case that could net the area millions of dollars to help negate issues created by drug abuse.

Cabell County and Huntington were among the first in 2017 to file claims against the drug companies. While the case was filed in local court, it was sent to the desk of Cleveland-based U.S. District Judge Dan Polster, when a multidistrict litigation (MDL) group was created to deal with the complex claims of about 2,500 similar cases.

The order for remand for the two cases was requested to the MDL panel Monday by Polster, who will remain the hub of all other litigation and the center for discussions of global settlements.

With the remand, the Cabell County and Huntington cases will now be taken over by a federal judge located in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia. The cases have not been assigned to a judge yet.

The lawsuits argue that manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies and pharmacy benefit managers 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.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration data showed that from 2006 to the end of 2016, West Virginia received 853.5 million prescription pain pills. Of those, 65 million — about 96 per person per year — were distributed in Cabell County, with millions more going to surrounding counties.

West Virginia suffered 1,017 overdose deaths in 2017, compared with 890 in 2016, 735 in 2015 and 629 in 2014. Cabell County led the state, with 157 in 2017, 92 in 2016, and 82 in 2015.

Huntington-based attorney Paul T. Farrell Jr., who represents Cabell County in its claims, previously said while he is pushing forward with a trial in mind, he will seek $500 million from three of the main drug firms — Cardinal Health, McKesson Corp. and AmerisourceBergen — during settlement talks prior to the start of a trial.

By sending those two cases back to a West Virginia court, any settlement money will go solely to the two governments. Farrell said a plan created by a 30-person group of government officials, health officials and others has been created to decide how any money awarded will be spent. The money would also be placed in a trust and be controlled by a board.

The move for remand comes about a month after Cabell County commissioners agreed with Polster’s request to scale back their claims against several drug firms. Polster had requested the two governments to limit the type of defendants to only distributors and pharmacies.

He also requested that attorneys limit the number of defendants against whom they are serious about facing in the initial trial, and asked Cabell County and Huntington to limit the amount of claims made against those companies.

Commissioners agreed to ask the judge to sever and remand Cardinal Health, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen, who have been refered to as the “Big Three,” but asked to reserve all causes of actions and damages filed against the remaining companies and pharmacies in the suit.

They also agreed to dismiss all claims against those companies — except for public nuisance, racketeering by pharmacies, civil conspiracy and punitive damages — as the judge has requested.

In October, the “Big Three” settled for $215 million in the final hour before trial with Cuyahoga and Summit counties in Ohio, who were to be the first in the 2,500 lawsuits to go to trial.

Man arrested after Huntington police chase results in vehicle crash, fire

HUNTINGTON — A police chase down a busy Huntington street Monday resulted in the arrest of a fugitive and the temporary closure of a popular downtown pizzeria after the man crashed his vehicle into the business, creating a large fire with major damage.

Interim Police Chief Ray Cornwell said Tanner Austin Miller, 24, of Huntington, was spotted driving the vehicle at about 9 a.m. Monday and police tried to stop him around 17th Street and 9th Avenue due to his active felony warrants.

The suspect fled west then north onto Hal Greer Boulevard, also known as 16th Street, before crashing into a pickup truck and driving through a large window on the 4th Avenue side of the Husson’s Pizza, coming to a stop in the kitchen area, where the front end of the crossover SUV burst into flames.

After crashing into the building, the suspect fled on foot and was soon caught by police nearby in 3½ Alley. He had two active felony and misdemeanor warrants and will face additional charges related to the crash, Cornwell said.

His outstanding warrants charged him with the felonies of fleeing with reckless disregard and third-offense driving on a suspended or revoked license for DUI stemming from a Dec. 24, 2019 incident. He will face the same charges for Monday’s incident, Cornwell said.

A woman driving the pickup truck suffered minor injuries.

Chad Hale, a barber at neighboring Upper Cuts Barber Shop, spent his morning trying to clear the business of smoke and mask the fire smell, which had seeped through the wall the businesses share. His first thought went to Husson’s owner, who he said is a great guy and does not deserve the woes caused by the crash.

“What can you do as a business owner to prevent a tragedy like this?” he said. “It’s sad. It’s just a local business trying to do well here in the community.”

Fire Chief Jan Rader said firefighters with Engine 1 were able to knock out the fire quickly. The crash could have had much worse results, she said.

“Firefighters were able to get inside and turn off the gas to the pizza ovens very quickly,” she said. “We had a total of six fire apparatus here. Five is standard, but because it’s a commercial building, we automatically bring in more help.”

There were no Husson’s employees or customers inside the business at the time of the crash.

With Marshall University’s spring semester not starting until Jan. 13, pedestrian traffic in the area was unusually low, which most likely prevented other injuries, Hale said.

“Generally this has lots of foot traffic,” he said. “If class was in session right now, generally you would see hundreds of students walking back and forth to class. Someone could have been really hurt.”

While Husson’s suffered major damage to its business, the rest of the 36,000-square-foot, two-story building appeared OK, besides some smoke, fire and water damage, Rader said.

Leah Payne, Marshall’s director of communications, said Monday the second floor of the building is used as storage for the university and was not occupied Monday. Besides Husson’s, two barbershops also occupy the building. The barbershops also closed Monday due to the fire and smell of smoke. Power was also cut off to the businesses.

Payne said damage assessment of the building is underway, but the university is aware of damage caused by the vehicle, along with smoke, fire and water damage, which affected other parts of the building.

“The university is in the process of talking with the owners of the three commercial businesses located in the building,” she said.

Payne said securing and boarding up the building will be handled by Classic Construction and the university’s in-house physical plant team, but it’s too early to give a timetable on repairs and reconstruction of the building.

Miller was taken to the Western Regional Jail in Barboursville and bond was set at $66,000 cash only.

Downtown Huntington now has full-time police foot patrol officers

HUNTINGTON — The Huntington Police Department has revived a full-time foot patrol unit downtown in the wake of several violent incidents, including a New Year’s Day shooting that injured seven people.

However, Huntington Interim Police Chief Ray Cornwell said the patrols are not a knee-jerk reaction to that shooting and have actually been in development for about six months. The patrols were included in a new three-year contract the city signed with the union representing the police department in August, which created a new staffing plan and 12-hour workdays.

That means people living and working downtown and the Marshall University areas can expect to see a dedicated officer either on foot or on a bike for 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

“The goal here is so folks can see more of a police presence downtown,” Cornwell said. “We believe this is a safe town, we believe it’s a great place to come hang out with your families, spend money, do whatever you are going to do, and we just want everybody else to feel that way too.”

Starting this past Saturday, Huntington Police Cpl. John Webber and Cpl. Kyle Patton are alternating shifts to ensure that one person is scheduled every day of the week. They will work three days straight and take four days off before switching with each other to work four days and three days off.

Cornwell said the officers’ schedule will be need-driven as it’s getting started, primarily working during daylight hours. In the warmer months, the officers may want to work more night shifts, he said.

On Saturday, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams visited dozens of downtown businesses to introduce them to Webber, who was on patrol that day. As a follow-up, Williams sent a letter to them Monday, reaffirming the city’s commitment “to making sure our downtown and neighborhoods are maintaining a safe and pleasant environment to live, work and play, which is a vital factor toward economic growth.”

“The shooting incident that occurred Jan. 1 on 4th Avenue went against that objective, and I want to stress it is unacceptable and will not be tolerated in our downtown or any neighborhood in the city,” he said in the letter. “My administration also is pursuing changes that will strengthen the vetting process for business licenses.”

Police said the Jan. 1 shooting that injured seven people started inside Kulture Hookah Bar, which did not have the proper licenses to run legitimately or a state liquor license. City officials later learned one of the bar’s co-owners is a federal felon.

The city has since sent a cease-and-desist order to shut down the bar. Williams is seeking to revise the city’s business license process to add a background check procedure and change the city’s zoning ordinances to stop new bars from opening within the city.

“You will get to know these officers, who were hand-picked for this important assignment, on a first-name basis over the next few weeks as they continue to visit your businesses during their shift,” Williams said.

Both Webber and Patton were excited for their new assignments, Cornwell said. Several officers expressed interest in the patrols when there were discussions about restarting them. Eventually, the goal is to make the patrols an annual rotation, meaning two other officers will take on the beat next year, Cornwell said.

“We will try to get a couple more guys out there just to keep it fresh,” he said.

In addition to working their regular foot patrol shifts, the officers may fill in for other units when there is someone out sick or out for an injury, which would be rare, he said.

The police department officially restarted its foot patrol unit in August, but only on a part-time basis. A foot patrol officer position was created in 2008 under former Mayor Kim Wolfe, but was later phased out as attention shifted to other types of police work.