PRINCETON — Mercer County has chosen to leave a federal lawsuit against the manufacturers of opioid pain medications and have its case go before a state panel of judges appointed by the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, the Mercer County Commission announced Tuesday.
The county commission went into executive session early in its October meeting to discuss the opioid litigation with Prosecuting Attorney George Sitler and attorneys H. Truman Chafin and Tish Chafin of the Chafin Law Firm, which has been representing West Virginia counties seeking damages from drug manufacturers.
After leaving the executive session, Sitler said the discussion had been whether Mercer County should remain in the federal lawsuit.
“The opioid crisis has hit Mercer County in a disproportionate way because West Virginia’s overdose death rate is far higher than many of the municipalities and counties that are represented in that national class,” Sitler said. “The county commission was advised by the Chafin Law Firm and has decided to opt out of that negotiating class.”
“We’re seeking remand of the county’s claims to West Virginia circuit courts and ultimately to the mass litigation panel with the West Virginia Supreme Court. That is far more likely to result in a beneficial resolution for Mercer County’s residents,” Sitler stated.
Mercer County Commission President Gene Buckner looked for a motion for the county to opt out of the federal lawsuit. Commissioner Greg Puckett made a motion to accept Sitler’s recommendation and Commissioner Bill Archer seconded it. The motion passed unanimously.
Circuit Court Judge Alan Moats of Barber County is the mass litigation panel’s chief judge, Truman Chafin said. Circuit Court Judge Derek Swope of Mercer County is one of the panel’s five members.
Sitler, along with Truman and Tish Chafin, spoke to the media after the county commission voted.
“Because the disproportionate impact the defendants’ (drug manufacturers) has had on Mercer County, vastly disproportionate overdose rates, vastly disproportionate incarceration rates, and burdens on our law enforcement community, the county commission has decided to opt out of the negotiating class and pursue our own recovery in state court to try to get this before the mass litigation panel of the West Virginia Supreme Court,” Sitler said.
There are 34,000 communities nationwide that are pulled together and “Mercer County has suffered far greater injuries than places like Los Angeles or Chicago,” Sitler said.
“Mercer County is seeking recovery of our costs in law enforcement response, emergency services response, hospitalization stays for citizens who have suffered from opioid addiction and it’s important to note that the judges serving on the mass litigation panel for the West Virginia Supreme Court are court judges from places like Mercer County who have long experienced the cost of the addiction imposed on their citizens” Sitler said.
Truman Chafin said attorneys representing plaintiffs and the defense have already met with the mass litigation panel.
“We think we are already in a position, sort of on the runway, when it comes back for them to take it up and dispose of these cases in West Virginia, which we think is much more beneficial to counties like Mercer than a national class action,” he said.
“The (State) Supreme Court formed the mass litigation panel about two months ago and there were cases in Marshall County which came together,” Tish Chafin said.
“It is our hope and feeling by the end of the year Mercer County will be remanded back from the federal case into the state case; and the mass litigation panel is essentially a smaller class than the huge 34,000 class that Mercer County decided to opt out of today,” she stated, estimating this state class could have 150 entities including counties, municipalities and hospitals.
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