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New York jury finds Teva Pharmaceuticals liable in the opioid crisis

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A jury in New York has found Teva Pharmaceuticals liable for fueling the nation's deadly opioid epidemic. The verdict adds momentum to nationwide efforts to hold the drug industry accountable for the epidemic and comes as new research shows more than a million people have died in the U.S. from drug overdoses since the opioid crisis began in the late 1990s.

NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann is here to bring us the latest. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What did the jury say? Tell us more about this verdict.

MANN: So, Ari, Teva's not a company that's really a name brand firm, but they made big profits over the years selling these highly addictive opioids. And the jury heard a bunch of testimony that Teva recklessly contributed to what's known in legal terms as a public nuisance by fueling the opioid crisis, growing rates of addiction. The jury didn't find Teva solely responsible, but they put most of the blame on this firm.

Jurors heard through the trial about really high-pressure tactics used by the company to raise opioid sales, flooding communities with pills. In a statement today, New York's Attorney General Letitia James said Teva misled the American people about the true dangers of opioids. And during the trial, attorneys for New York state claimed Teva trained their sales staff with aggressive videos, urging them to push up sales of opioids recklessly.

SHAPIRO: You've covered other similar lawsuits this year - notably one against Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. How significant is this verdict in the national picture?

MANN: Well, this is a big deal. You know, these lawsuits against Big Pharma all over the U.S. are based on that experimental legal theory that I mentioned, this public nuisance idea. And state courts in California and Oklahoma actually rejected this idea just recently that the opioid crisis can be viewed as a public nuisance that companies should be made to clean up.

But now, a federal court in Ohio last month upheld this kind of argument. We have this New York state's verdict today in state court. And now we're waiting for other court rulings in West Virginia and Washington state. So this is an important moment - an important verdict that's going to be read closely around the U.S. as other cases move forward.

SHAPIRO: Any idea how much Teva will have to pay?

MANN: Well, first, I should say Teva's made it clear they're going to appeal. They said in a statement this afternoon, New York state misled jurors - that's their claim - during this trial. But if the verdict is upheld, the amount paid in damages by the company will be set by the court after a second trial. State and local officials say most of that money would go to fund drug treatment and health care programs. The scale of the money could be big.

New York Attorney General Letitia James has settled with other drug companies over the last several months. And in a statement today, she said her office has already secured opioid payments from these other drug companies worth more than $1.5 billion.

SHAPIRO: And today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new report talking about drug deaths during the opioid crisis - more than a million lives lost. And the numbers just keep rising.

MANN: Yeah, that's right. Public health experts say this drug epidemic that began with these prescription pain pills has just gotten worse and worse with illegal street drugs - a record number of deaths, more than 100,000 this year alone, according to preliminary data from the CDC. That includes opioids like fentanyl and all other drugs.

One thing this report shows, Ari, is that the most vulnerable people here are young and middle-aged, folks in their 30s and 40s taking the brunt of this, and drug deaths among teenagers and people in their 20s rising by nearly 50% in a single year - so young people in working-aged families really being devastated by this crisis.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Brian Mann, addiction correspondent. Thank you very much.

MANN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACKBIRD BLACKBIRD'S "HEARTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.