Man Sets Out On Legal Mission After Seeing Opioids Destroy His Hometown

By Kelly Burch 07/25/18

A West Virginia lawyer is working to hold major opioid manufacturers legally responsible for their role in the epidemic that has ravaged his home state.

seated lawyer surrounded by stacks of documents

With record-high rates of overdose deaths and babies born with opioid dependence, Huntington, West Virginia is at the heart of the nation’s overdose crisis.

It’s also home to Paul Farrell, a lawyer working to sue major opioid manufacturers, who doesn’t want his town to be grouped into the usual picture of downtrodden rural America. 

“People have been underestimating me for a very long time,” Farrell told MSN. “I’m accustomed to being stereotyped as the Appalachia, redneck hillbilly.”  

Farrell is leading the lawsuits for many West Virginia towns, who are suing big names like Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Teva, and drug distributors.

He says that he has personally seen the toll that opioids have taken on the region. “I have people my age that I know that are addicted to opioids,” Farrell said. “I know people that have children in their early 20s that they have lost.”

And yet Farrell isn’t overly sentimental about the crisis—he’s out for revenge. “We eat what we kill,” Farrell said. “I’m stalking. I'm stalking the herd.”

Many of Farrell’s lawsuits hang on public nuisance laws, with his argument essentially being that drug manufacturers and distributors created a massive and costly public nuisance throughout the state. 

“If you drop a nuclear bomb right there—boom!—this is the fallout,” Farrell said of the region. 

Paul Hanly, a lawyer who has sued Big Tobacco and is working with Farrell on his suits, said that Farrell is tenacious in defending his region. 

“He’s a gladiator,” Hanly said. “He feels he’s on a mission to correct some wrongs that have adversely affected his state worse than any other state in the nation.”

Farrell is also unapologetic about the potential money that he could make from the lawsuits. The firms filing the suits stand to make up to 25% of their client’s portions of any settlement. With settlements that could reach $50 billion, the payout for lawyers could be significant. 

“Sometimes it’s a feast. Sometimes it's a famine,” Farrell said.

Farrell started his career in family law, before moving on to the more lucrative role of a plaintiff’s attorney, representing people who had been harmed. “I was writing very large checks to dumbass lawyers, and I thought to myself, ‘I’d like to be one of those dumbasses that gets one of these checks,’” Farrell said.

This time, he’s aiming for a significant payout for the communities that have been impacted. Farrell believes that past settlements between West Virginia and opioid manufacturers have been too small.

“It pissed me off that we got handled like that,” he said.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.