STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A federal jury says three giant pharmacy chains are responsible for the abuse of drugs that they sold. The jury ruled against CVS, Walgreens and Walmart for their sales of opioids. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann has been covering this trial Brian, good morning.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What makes this an important judgment?
MANN: This is the first jury in the country to hold these pharmacy chains accountable in this way for the opioid crisis. Mark Lanier is one of the lead attorneys at the center of the case representing communities near Cleveland, Ohio. He says this verdict made it clear CVS, Walgreens and Walmart didn't do enough to keep their customers safe as more and more of these highly addictive opioid pills went out the door.
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MARK LANIER: Through this trial, the jury was able to assess those national measures that had been put in place by these pharmaceutical chains and shout out from the rooftops inadequate.
MANN: Inadequate, he says, because these pharmacy chains kept selling more and more pills for years after it was clear addiction rates and overdoses were surging. Now a separate legal process will determine how big the payout to these communities will be. And, Steve, it's expected to top a billion dollars, could go as high as $2 billion.
INSKEEP: Wow. Just for these communities outside of Cleveland, Ohio.
MANN: That's right.
INSKEEP: Amazing. And, of course, these are nationwide chains. How have the companies responded?
MANN: Walmart, CVS and Walgreens all sent statements to NPR denying any wrongdoing. They say they dispense these opioid pills only after doctors wrote prescriptions. They say if anyone's at fault here, it's government regulators. The companies say they will now appeal, but this is clearly a tough moment, Steve, for these big, name brand firms, some of the highest profile corporations in America. And this verdict ties them directly to an ongoing opioid crisis. Remember, earlier this month, the CDC reported more than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in a 12-month period - a devastating new record.
INSKEEP: Which raises a question - what does this one judgment mean for thousands of other lawsuits that might be similar?
MANN: This verdict is really seen as a validation of a legal argument that's being used in a lot of these opioid cases, but it's an argument that until now hadn't had much success. Government officials in these communities have long argued that drug companies and pharmacy chains created what's known as a public nuisance by selling all these pills recklessly and should be made to pay to clean up the mess. Two state courts - one in California, another in Oklahoma - just this month rejected this very same argument. So communities, Steve, suing the drug industry over opioids really needed a legal win, and that's what they finally got yesterday from this federal jury in Ohio.
INSKEEP: Useful to know that this verdict may not be the same in every case, and in fact it, hasn't been the same in every case.
MANN: That's right.
INSKEEP: Nevertheless, there is this particular judgment. There is money coming. What do communities intend to do with it?
MANN: Well, these court cases do come, as I mentioned, at a time when the epidemic is raging, more and more people dying at devastating numbers. So Jason Boyd is county administrator in Lake County near Cleveland, one of the communities that filed the suit.
JASON BOYD: Today's news is only going to accelerate our efforts to provide the best services we can to our family, our children, our foster parent associations, our criminal justice system.
MANN: And communities all over the U.S. say they need this kind of financial help to cope with the opioid crisis. So there's a lot at stake here, not just for people with addiction, Steve, but for parents and children and whole communities affected by the fallout from this epidemic. And then, of course, what we're seeing now for the drug industry, this verdict signals a lot of legal and financial peril ahead as all these opioid lawsuits move forward.
INSKEEP: Man. He says foster parent associations, and you instantly have a vision of families devastated by this crisis. Brian, thanks so much.
MANN: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann.
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