Bobby Jack Woods

Boyd County Sheriff Bobby Jack Woods. File photo.

CATLETTSBURG The Boyd Fiscal Court plans to join a tidal wave of counties in Kentucky and West Virginia partnering with a Huntington-based law firm to sue mega opioid distributors facing heat amid the deadliest drug overdose crisis in U.S. history.

The officials said yes to an offer by Paul T. Farrell of Greene, Ketchum, Farrell, Bailey & Tweel Tuesday at the old courthouse. The move still needs a second reading and final approval.

Farrell made his pitch on the heels of praise from Boyd Sheriff Bobby Jack Woods, who lobbied the fiscal court last month to work with the firm. The Huntington lawyer said painkiller wholesalers contributed mightily to the plague of addiction ravaging the Tri-State region by flooding communities with prescription opiates.

Users of the prescription drugs often became dependent and eventually graduated to more deadly opioids like heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil according to health and law enforcement officials.

Greene Ketchum would work with the county on a contingency basis, meaning the county would not be on the hook for legal fees in any suit against wholesale opioid distributors. The firm would receive 30 percent of any damages won but won’t charge the county if no damages are awarded. Boyd would mimic Cabell County and 40 others across Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois and Alabama by partnering with the law firm, Ferrell said.

The attorney said his firm ignited a push to target opioid distributors after the revelation wholesalers sent 780 million prescription painkillers into West Virginia over a six-year span while the state’s population hovered around 1.8 million. The Charleston Gazette-Mail won a Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for its reporting on the previously confidential shipping sales records.

In its lawsuits, Greene Ketchum alleges corporate drug distributors breached their duty to “monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders of prescription opiates.”

Federal law requires drug distributors to report any suspicious controlled substance orders by pharmacies to authorities.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of Cabell County alleges drug distributors sold 40 million doses of opioid pain medicine in Cabell between 2007 and 2012. The flood of pills led to headache for the county, the city of Huntington and the Tri-State region, Farrell said.

Widespread drug dependency has not only led to a sharp rise in overdoses across the country. It’s shattered homes and contributed to a wave of crime, drained resources from first responders and tied up court dockets.

“In Cabell County … we used to have four abuse and neglect cases a year,” said Farrell, whose father is a judge in Cabell County circuit court. “Now we have 400.”

Farrell said rather than waiting for the federal and state governments to solve the problem, “we’ve (the firm) decided to find a community solution.”

If counties are successful in their suit against wholesalers, they would be reimbursed for the strain placed on their budget caused by monetary damages. “We’re attempting to get a bunch of money from the distributors who made hundreds of billions selling you pills,” Farrell told the fiscal court.

Boyd County could be eligible to use money captured to help fund its law enforcement agencies, EMS service, coroner’s office and even the financially-strapped Boyd County 911 Center among other local agencies.

The firm would also seek abatement funds if it can prove the wholesalers created a public nuisance by flooding Boyd County with pills while the opioid epidemic gained steam, Farrell said. If successful, the firm would retain 30 percent of those winnings, he said.

County commissioners and Judge-Executive Steve Towler were unanimous in support of the agreement with Greene Ketchum. But Commissioner John Greer suggested opioid distributors weren’t the only party to blame for the epidemic. The doctors who prescribed the painkillers were also at fault, he said.

“And some of them are in prison for it,” said Farrell. “… The result of what we’re going to do is bring some transparency at every level of the chain of distribution.”

The opioid epidemic has clobbered Boyd more than any other eastern Kentucky county. Thirty people overdosed and died in the county alone last year – the sixth highest mark in the state despite Boyd’s population of 48,000 being only the 16th most in the state.

The Boyd Fiscal Court is set to meet again Oct. 10.