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Closing Statements End In Trial Over Holding Companies Liable For Opioid Crisis

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Communities around the country are watching a landmark federal opioid trial in West Virginia, where closing arguments wrapped up just this afternoon. The trial is expected to help establish how much drug companies will have to pay nationwide for their role in the deadly opioid crisis. NPR's Brian Mann is in Charleston and joins us now.

Hey, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So remind us - why are the stakes so high in this particular trial?

MANN: Well, you know, this case involves some untested legal arguments about whether corporations that got into the opioid business - and this includes some of the biggest companies in the U.S. - whether they can be held liable now for helping to clean up an opioid epidemic that's killed more than 500,000 Americans. And if they are on the hook, the payouts could be enormous. The communities involved in this test case, the small city of Huntington and surrounding Cabell County, W.Va., they're asking for more than $2.5 billion in damages. Multiply that by all the communities ravaged by opioids that have filed lawsuits all over the country, and that's a lot of risk for these companies.

CHANG: A huge risk. OK, so meanwhile, as this trial is ending, there is a national settlement on the table, right?

MANN: That's right. And these companies - AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson - they've agreed to pay $21 billion to states and local governments that sign on to the deal. Joe Rice, with the firm Motley Rice, helped negotiate the settlement. And he says the outcome of this West Virginia trial could really shape whether officials take that offer or decide to keep fighting in court.

JOE RICE: People are going to watch what happens in Huntington and Cabell. Huntington and Cabell are one of the hardest hit areas in the country, so everybody will have to measure the facts they have to put forward in what they decide to do through the settlement process or through a trial.

MANN: So, again, this reckoning over the opioid epidemic - this case in West Virginia - it could really shape what comes next.

CHANG: Right. OK, well, as we mentioned, closing arguments wrapped up today. What did each side say to make their cases?

MANN: So attorneys representing this community, Huntington and Cabell County, they told a powerful story about how these drug wholesalers shipped 81 million pills to this one area. It's a population of fewer than 100,000 people. They say the companies acted recklessly and really contributed to this epidemic of addiction. Public health officials say 1 in 10 people are now opioid-dependent, more than 2,000 children in this small community diagnosed with developmental damage linked to opioids. So the legal arguments laid out in court during this trial were highly technical, Ailsa. But, behind that, there was a real sense of outrage at what these companies allegedly did.

CHANG: And what do the companies have to say about that, about what they did or did not do?

MANN: In the past, some of these firms have offered apologies, especially for some of their internal emails, where they sounded really cavalier about the opioid crisis. At times, corporate executives joked about people with addiction. But in court today, they told a very different story. Their attorneys said they had no fault at all and acted reasonably and properly with all of these opioid shipments. They point out all their drug shipments involved legal prescriptions written by doctors delivered to licensed pharmacies. Basically, they say if someone is at fault for creating this tsunami of pain pills, it's not them. So now the federal judge in this case, David Faber, is going to have to decide whether there is any accountability for these companies or whether the law effectively shelters them now from liability.

CHANG: That is NPR's Brian Mann in Charleston, W.Va.

Thank you, Brian.

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