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Kanawha County law firm to go after pill mills

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Members of the Kanawha County Commission gave a local law firm the go-ahead Thursday to sue local doctors, pharmacists and drug suppliers in an attempt to stem the county's prescription drug problem.

Local attorney Jim Cagle and the DiTrapano law firm want to file suit in Kanawha County Circuit Court and circuit courts in at least two other counties against doctors who write illicit prescriptions, pharmacies that fill them and the pharmaceutical companies that supply the pills, Cagle told county commissioners Kent Carper, Dave Hardy and Hoppy Shores.

State and federal officials are also pursuing legal channels to try to stop "pill mills," but Cagle believes counties also have an argument that the state's prescription drug problem is directly linked to local crime, for which county taxpayers have to pick up the tab. Kanawha County pays about $5 million a year just to house inmates at the South Central Regional Jail.

West Virginia leads the nation in prescription drug overdoses, Cagle said.

He said he was involved in one case involving a pharmacy in Kermit in Mingo County that was ranked 23rd in the nation for Oxycodone prescriptions. He said the pharmacy did $10 million in business a year, and out-of-state drug suppliers made $240,000 to $400,000 a month from the scheme.

Cagle said prescription drug abuse leads to crime, crime leads to arrests, and arrests lead to jail. He and other lawyers intend to argue that the county and taxpayers are due compensation for criminals who are hooked on drugs.

"Seventy-five to 85 percent of the people I prosecute are addicted to drugs in one way or another," agreed county prosecutor Mark Plants.

Cagle asked Carper, Hardy and Shores to give the law firm permission to sue doctors, pharmacists and pill suppliers on behalf of the county. He thinks the list of defendants will probably include at least two international pill manufacturers.

Cagle said the approach has not been tried before, and could set a national precedent. No one knows how much the county could win, but one pill supplier was recently fined $300 million.

County officials won't have to pay for the legal representation, but the law firm will collect a third of any court settlement or fine. The attorneys won't make anything if they lose, but county taxpayers won't be out anything, either.

"Go get 'em," Carper said.

Under the agreement made Thursday, county officials will get to look at the lawsuit before it's filed.

Also Thursday, commissioners approved a $242,000 expense by Sheriff Johnny Rutherford to buy a Lenco BearCat armored assault vehicle. The sheriff's departments -- and other law enforcement agencies in the state -- have been trying to get one of the vehicles for years, but have been unable to get grant money to help pay for them.

"This will save an officer's or a civilian's life," Rutherford said, adding that it's only a matter of time before such a vehicle will be needed to combat an armed gunman in a hostage situation.

"The county needs it," he said. "The region needs it." Rutherford said there isn't another similar vehicle in the state, and he would make it available for local police departments and the West Virginia State Police to use in emergencies.

The four-wheel-drive vehicle is based on a Ford F-550 truck chassis, and is impervious to pistol and rifle fire.

The county already has a cast-off former military armored car, but the vehicle is old and unsafe. Although the county didn't pay for it, the armored car is a Vietnam War-era design, was built in 1981 and was already worn out when the county got it.

"It was a good stopgap vehicle until we could get the real one," said sheriff's department training officer Lt. Keith Vititoe.

Rutherford said the sheriff's department will shuffle money around in its existing budget to pay for the BearCat, and won't be asking for any additional county money.

Also Thursday, commissioners agreed to pay up to $12,000 for a forensic audit of the county's jail bill. County officials are constantly finding errors and incorrect charges in the county's monthly bill from the state.Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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