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Pair listed as witnesses in opioid trial

County mental health director, sheriff’s officer could testify

The lawyers representing Trumbull and Lake counties arguing a civil case about the roots of a deadly opiate epidemic could be turning to testimony from two Trumbull County individuals closely tied to fighting drug abuse in the Mahoning Valley.

Appearing on a witness list in the jury trial continuing this week before U.S. District Judge Daniel A. Polster in Cleveland are April Caraway, executive director of Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board, and Capt. Tony Villanueva, commander of the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Trumbull Action Group drug task force.

Caraway and Villanueva have been at the forefront on the war against opiate use in Trumbull County. New statistics released Friday by the Trumbull County Coroner’s Office show 68 fatal drug overdoses through early August this year.

The data shows that 61 of those fatal overdoses has some sort of fentanyl / opioid mixture involved, including the prescription drug oxycodone in two of the cases. There were 116 accidental drug-related deaths in Trumbull County in 2020, compared to 92 in 2019 and 75 in 2018. The 2020 figure, according to coroner reports, represents the second-highest total, with the highest being 135 in 2017 when county officials declared war against opioids.

Total drug overdoses reported in 2021 are 429, according to figures from the Trumbull Combined Health District.

The civil trial is a result of Trumbull and Lake counties filing a joint lawsuit in 2018 over the number of prescription painkillers dispensed in the counties between 2012 and 2016. The amount equaled 400 pills for every resident in Trumbull County, and in Lake County, it equaled 265 pills for every resident.

Caraway and Villanueva said they cannot comment about potential testimony because of the pending litigation.

Also on the witness list are Lake County officials Kim Fraser, executive director of the Lake County Board of Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS); Curtis Lau, Lake County ADAMHS board member; Detective Capt. Ronald Walters of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office; and Melanie Blaski, CEO of the Lake Geauga Recovery Centers.

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Testimony last week disclosed estimates each county would have to spend upward of $1 billion to address the ramifications of the drug epidemic.

Testimony also came from an expert witness who said that since the early 1980s, the major pharmaceutical companies working with distributors — such as the three national drugstore chains named in the lawsuit– purposefully provided misinformation stating opioids can be used to relieve chronic pain.

That expert, Dr. Anna Lembke, a psychiatrist, author and professor at Stanford University, was just one of nine experts the plaintiffs are expected to call in the coming weeks to the downtown Cleveland courtroom.

Documentation was introduced last week by the plaintiffs’ lawyers about a Warren family practice named in a wrongful death lawsuit filed in 2011 and the subject of harsh online reviews. The local doctors were sued by the surviving family members of an Iraqi War veteran from Champion who committed suicide in August 2009 after being treated for PTSD and brain injury.

That legal action was settled in May 2014 with a $200,000 payment to the plaintiffs after a civil jury could not reach a decision in the case.

Another plaintiff exhibit dealt with a suspicious Hydrocodone prescription — signed by a physician from the same Warren family practice — sought to be filled in late 2015 at a CVS Pharmacy on Parkman Road NW in Warren.

The case was opened Dec. 21, 2015, according to the document, when a pharmacist reported the suspicious prescription to a corporate call center. It was cleared by corporate on Jan. 12, 2016, with instructions to document the doctor’s diagnosis and code on the hard copy of the prescription.

The local CVS pharmacists were told to make judgments on whether or not to fill subsequent prescriptions, according to emails from the documentation that will eventually be seen by jurors during deliberation.

Court watchers nationwide are watching this Cleveland civil trial because experts believe it would serve as a possible legal template other communities may use in civil actions against drug companies and pharmacies.

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