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Defense seeks to limit TAG chief’s testimony in opioid trial

Defense attorneys at the federal civil trial against drugstore chains involving opioid prescriptions are trying to limit the testimony of two officials on the front lines of the opioid war in Trumbull and Lake counties.

Jurors in the downtown Cleveland courtroom of U.S. District Judge Daniel A. Polster are hearing testimony in the third week of the proceeding. On Tuesday, attorneys for the plaintiff counties brought Capt. Tony Villanueva, commander for the Trumbull County Sheriff’s TAG drug task force, to the witness stand.

Villanueva testified about his dealings with the opioid crisis in Trumbull County while he worked on the anti-drug task force, first as a detective with Howland police and then beginning in late 2016 as its commander.

Attorneys for the drugstore chains had tried to limit the scope of the lawman’s testimony — as they are trying to do with the upcoming testimonies this week expected from April Caraway, executive director of the Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board; and Kimberly Fraser, executive director of the Lake County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board.

DEPOSITIONS

A brief filed by defense attorneys states Caraway, Fraser and even Villanueva had opined that prescription opioid medications dispensed by the drug chains are a “gateway” to illicit drug use. The defense argues plaintiff witnesses cannot make that argument because they lack personal knowledge, and the “gateway” perception is based on what they have heard from other persons — which in legal terms is inadmissible hearsay for jurors to consider.

In a deposition given in March, Caraway in answering a question about local residents becoming addicted to both prescription and illicit opioids states: “Yes, we’ve heard stories from young people where they said they first tried it taking it out of their mom’s purse or their grandma’s medicine cabinet or something like that. … that it was somebody else’s prescription opioid that they took.”

Caraway in the deposition later said she estimated upwards of 70 percent of the people she talked to started their habit with prescription opioids and then turned to the illicit drugs. “I take a lot of phone calls from people who tell me that … What they were calling about was their opiate use and what they consistently told me was they started out on prescription opioids,” it stated.

In a deposition taken Nov. 30, 2020, Villanueva also talked about a “gateway” effect based upon information he learned from victims, victims of addiction and also the families, parents and relatives of those who died from overdoses.

In a March deposition taken from Fraser, she stated: “The biggest impact that we were seeing on our community was this — the prescription opioid crisis and how it had become a gateway to other substances impacting our community.”

The other substances, Fraser noted, are fentanyl and fentanyl analogs such as carfentanil.

“So once a person has that addiction to the prescription opioid and they’re needing to meet that need, they may be turning to other drugs on the street to feed that (habit),” Fraser states in the document.

COUNTER ARGUMENT

The lawyers for the counties countered the defense arguments saying the previous testimony of Caraway, Villanueva and Fraser is based properly on their particularized knowledge and experience acquired through their jobs.

Polster has not ruled on whether this testimony will be allowed when both Fraser and Caraway come to the courtroom either today or Friday.

On Wednesday, plaintiffs called to the stand two expert witnesses: David Cutler, a Harvard economist, and certified financial analyst Craig McCann, who talked about cause-and-effect relationship between prescription opioids and the rising death toll from overdoses.

The civil jury trial is expected to continue for about six weeks.

In 2018, Trumbull and Lake counties filed a joint lawsuit over the number of prescription painkillers dispensed in the counties between 2012 and 2016. The amount equaled to 400 pills for every Trumbull County resident.

Among the main defendants are the three national pharmacy chains and regional Giant Eagle. Defendant Rite Aid settled with the plaintiffs earlier this year. The company paid Trumbull County $1.5 million. The amount paid to Lake County has not been disclosed.

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