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Mercer County considers opioid lawsuit: Commission leaders may take legal action against drug companies


Bluefield Daily Telegraph

PRINCETON, W.Va. After hearing a presentation Tuesday from a legal team, the Mercer County Commission is considering a lawsuit again drug companies that have been shipping large amounts of opioid pain medications to southern West Virginia.

Attorney Truman Chafin addressed the county commission during its January meeting about the drug problems facing Mercer County and other parts of the state. In a 2009 study, West Virginia was dubbed “The Nation’s Most Medicated State,” Chafin said.

In their presentation, Chafin and attorney Harry F. Bell Jr. proposed filing litigation against companies sending pain medications to southern West Virginia. Chafin described the possible defendants as “not just large, well-heeled corporations, they are some of the largest companies in the United States and the world.”

 One of these companies, the McKesson Corporation, was in 2015 the fifth highest revenue generating company in the United States. The company earned more than $179 billion in annual revenue, Chafin said.

County Commission President Gene Buckner asked if litigation would cost the county any out of pocket expenses. Chafin replied that the action would not cost the county; the legal team would be paid on a contingency fee. In their presentation, the attorneys said that the drug problem causes counties to face major expenses. As much as 90 percent of circuit court criminal dockets are regularly made up of cases such as prescription drug abuse either directly or indirectly.

When asked about the county’s monthly bill from the state regional jail authority, Commissioner Greg Puckett replied that the county pays approximately $160,000 a month. Chafin said one pharmacist in the town of Kermit made $500,000 a month on opioid prescriptions. Drug companies shipped nine million opioid pills to Kermit, which has a population of about 400 people.

Besides corporations like the McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health and Amerisource Bergin, other business entities such as distributors could become part of the case, Bell said.

The legal team pursuing the lawsuit anticipate that the drug companies will seek to move the cases to federal court, Truman Chafin said. Another possibility is that the cases could be combined by the West Virginia Mass Litigation Panel; if this occurs, the legal team would ask to be lead counsel in the case.

Chafin said his team would rather try the cases in local courts where the lawsuits will be filed. He pointed in the direction of courtrooms next door to the commission’s chambers.

“We would like a Mercer County jury in the next room,” he stated.

Puckett said the commission would wait 10 days before making a decision and have Prosecuting Attorney George Sitler look at the proposed contract. The attorneys said they planned to approach the Mingo County Commission next week with the same proposal.

McDowell County filed a lawsuit in December 2016 against companies shipping opioid drugs into its jurisdiction. The same group of law firms that made the presentation to the Mercer County Commission are representing McDowell County.

The proposed legal team would include the Chafin Law Firm LLC with Truman and Letitia Chafin; Harry F. Bell Jr. and The Bell Law Firm, PLLC; Mary Troy and Troy Law Firm, PLLC; and John Yanchunis, James Young, and Morgan & Morgan, PA.

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