1st Week of Landmark Opioid Trial Ends

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- The West Virginia fire chief who starred in an Oscar-nominated documentary about battling drug abuse in ground zero of the nation's opioid epidemic took the stand in a landmark trial Friday against three large drug distributors.

Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader testified to the growing number of overdoses first responders handled over the past decade, recounting how pill bottles were at the scenes of so many calls they responded to. Defense attorneys representing the companies declined to ask her questions, The Herald-Dispatch reported.

Rader's testimony concluded the first week of the trial in a case where Cabell County and the city of Huntington accuse drug distributors AmerisourceBergen Drug Co., Cardinal Health Inc. and McKesson Corp of fueling the U.S. opioid epidemic.

Similar lawsuits have resulted in multimillion-dollar settlements, but this is the first time the allegations have wound up at federal trial. The result could have huge effects on hundreds of similar lawsuits that have been filed across the country.

The county and city argue that "The Big Three" drug distributors created a "public nuisance" by flooding the area with 80 million opioid doses over eight years and ignoring the signs that the community was being ravaged by addiction.

During the trial, attorneys for the manufacturers have attempted to shift the blame away from their clients by arguing that what happens after delivery is out of the suppliers' control, and that West Virginia's labor-intensive mining and industrial sectors may have led to workers with a greater need for painkillers. They also pointed out that the companies had no authority over illicit street drugs, the cause of the current crisis.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs expect to call several more witnesses next week, and the trial may last into mid-June.

Rader's emergency response to drug overdoses was featured in the 2017 film "Heroin(e)," which also included a Cabell County judge and a ministry leader. It was released by Netflix and nominated for the Academy Award for best documentary short subject.

"This day has been a long time coming," Rader said after leaving the federal courthouse in Charleston, according to The Herald-Dispatch. "This day is for all those suffering from substance use disorder who have lost their lives or have lost a loved one from this horrible disease."

Huntington was once ground zero for the addiction epidemic until a quick response program that formed in 2017 drove the overdose rate down. But the pandemic undid much of the progress.