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Federal judge sides with 3 major drug distributors in a landmark opioid lawsuit

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In a landmark opioid case in West Virginia, a federal judge ruled that three major drug distributors are not responsible for funding the treatment programs for the addiction crisis.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

It's a major victory for the drug industry, and it's a setback to local officials who say corporations flooded their community with highly addictive pain pills.

FADEL: NPR's addiction correspondent, Brian Mann, has been following this case. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So, Brian, remind us what these companies were accused of doing and what local governments were asking for.

MANN: So this lawsuit involved Cabell County and the city of Huntington in West Virginia. These are places absolutely devastated by the opioid crisis. I've actually spent time there, Leila, over the last couple of years and seen the high rates of addiction and overdose, whole families and neighborhoods really ravaged. And government officials tried to make the case that these big drug distributors, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson, kept sending more and more of these highly addictive pain pills to pharmacies there long after it was clear there was this deadly crisis. Communities also presented evidence suggesting the companies didn't put enough safeguards in place to stop suspicious orders of opioids. Attorneys for the communities arguing, in effect, these companies contributed to the opioid crisis, so they should have to pay billions of dollars to help clean it up.

FADEL: Now, there was no jury in this trial. It was decided by a judge. What did he say?

MANN: Yeah. So federal Judge David Faber heard this case almost a year ago and finally issued his ruling yesterday on the holiday, Fourth of July. And he acknowledged these communities have been hit hard by opioids. But then he flatly rejected their legal arguments. He said they failed to prove any specific acts by these companies caused the oversupply of opioids. He points out doctors wrote prescriptions for these pills. And Judge Faber also says there wasn't clear evidence that negligence by the companies allowed opioid pills to wind up on the black market. And I want to read from the ruling here. While there is a natural tendency to assign blame in such cases, Faber writes, they must be decided based not on sympathy but on the facts and the law. So, Leila, that means these companies won't pay anything.

FADEL: So they won't pay. What happens to these communities?

MANN: It's going to be hard. The opioid crisis has gotten worse over the last couple of years, 107,000 overdose deaths nationwide last year alone. A lot of people have been switching from prescription pain pills to heroin and then fentanyl, which means more overdoses and deaths. So these communities don't have the money to pay for all the addiction services and health care and foster care and other programs that might help. The mayor of Huntington, Steve Williams, said in a statement late yesterday that this decision is a blow to his city. And he again claimed that these companies - and I'm quoting here - "are part of a powerful industry responsible for fueling the epidemic."

FADEL: Now, you've described this as a landmark case. What will this ruling mean in other opioid cases across the country?

MANN: Yeah, AmerisourceBergen issued a statement yesterday praising the decision. And it is clearly a huge victory for the drug industry. There are thousands of opioid lawsuits underway - right now, another one slated to get underway in West Virginia this morning. This trial in federal court was what's known as a bellwether test case. So the outcome is a blow to communities all over the U.S. that have been trying to use similar legal arguments to the ones used by Huntington and Cabell County. What we've seen here, Leila, in this decision is that proving patterns of wrongdoing by Big Pharma, holding companies accountable - it's extremely hard to do.

FADEL: NPR's Brian Mann, thank you so much.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Brian Mann
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