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Federal judge rules in favor of drug distributors in West Virginia opioid case

July 5 (UPI) -- A West Virginia federal judge has ruled in favor of three wholesale drug distributors, stating they cannot be held responsible for the opioid crisis affecting communities in the state.

The ruling comes in a case brought against AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson by Huntington City and Cabell County on accusations of being a public nuisance to their communities by creating an opioid epidemic through the sale and distribution of the prescription drug.

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Judge David Faber on Monday sided with the three companies following the bench trial, which ended nearly a year ago, writing that the West Virginia government failed to show wrongdoing by the distributors.

"The opioid crisis has taken a considerable toll on the citizens of Cabell County and the City of Huntington. And while there is a natural tendency to assign blame in such cases, they must be decided not based on sympathy, but on the facts and the law," Faber wrote in the 184-page ruling. "In view of the court's findings and conclusions, the court finds that judgement should be entered in defendants' favor."

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The case brought before the West Virginia court is related to thousands that have been filed by local and state governments nationwide seeking compensation from drug companies over the opioid crisis.

According to court documents, Cabell County and Huntington city are among the hardest hit by the opioid epidemic in the state, and their officials have argued that the three companies were responsible as they distributed more than 51.3 million dosage units of opioid drugs to retail pharmacies in their communities between 2008 and 2014.

Faber ruled that the officials, however, failed to show that the distribution was because of unreasonable conduct on the part of the companies.

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The judge also said it was doctors, prescribing in good faith, who determined the volume of prescription opioids that pharmacies in their communities ordered from the three companies.

"Distributors have no control over the medical judgment of doctors. They do not see patients and are not tasked with deciding whether the patient ought to get pain medication," Faber wrote. "At best, distributors can detect upticks in dispensers' orders that may be traceable to doctors who may be intentionally or unintentionally violating medical standards.

"Distributors also are not pharmacists with expertise in assessing red flags that may be present in a prescription."

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AmerisourceBergen told UPI in a statement it was "pleased" with the court's decision.

"Today's ruling will help enable our company to do what we do best -- ensuring that healthcare facilities like hospitals and community pharmacies have access to the medications that patients and care providers needs," it said.

Cardinal Health also informed UPI its officials "applaud" the court's ruling, which recognizes "that we do not manufacture, market or prescribe prescription medications" but deliver drugs manufactured by various companies to hospital and pharmacy customers that disperse them to patients with a doctor-approved prescription.

McKesson, meanwhile said in an emailed statement to UPI that it was aware of the court's decision "in this complex case," while stating that it maintains and continuously enhances its programs that are designed to detect and prevent opioid diversion within the pharmaceutical supply chain.

"We continue to be deeply concerned about the impact that the opioid crisis is having on families and communities across our nation," the company said. "We see prescription drug diversion and abuse as an issue that needs to be addressed through a comprehensive approach that includes regulators, manufacturers, pharmacies, distributors, doctors and patients."

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said in a statement that they respect the court and the judicial system but are disappointed with the result.

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"This decision today is a blow to our city and community, but we remain resilient even in the face of adversity," he said. "The citizens of our city and county should not have to bear the principal responsibility of ensuring that an epidemic of this magnitude never occurs again."

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