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Washington State to start trial against companies over opioid epidemic


We're going to go to Washington state now. That's where a trial starts next Monday in the state's case against three of America's biggest drug distributors for their alleged role in fueling the opioid epidemic. These companies are McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen. Washington state attorney general Bob Ferguson, who's suing these companies, rejected an opioid settlement offer earlier this year, saying that it was, quote, "not nearly enough for Washington." This epidemic has cost countless lives in Washington state. According to the state's department of health, nearly 1,200 people died from an opioid overdose in last year alone. State attorney general Bob Ferguson joins us now. Welcome.

BOB FERGUSON: Thanks for having me, Ailsa - really appreciate it.

CHANG: Appreciate having you here. So this national settlement that these companies, along with Johnson & Johnson, proposed was worth something like $26 billion. Most states have signed onto it. So tell me why it felt inadequate to you.

FERGUSON: Sure. So I did reject that settlement, which would have brought in, you know, several hundred million dollars to the state of Washington. By the way, that would have been not just for the state, which I represent, but every city and county, which we have a few hundred. And those payments would've been spread out over 18 years - would have been about $30 million a year. Look; you don't have to be an expert in the impacts of the opioid epidemic and the harm caused by these defendants to realize that just is not enough to remedy the situation, dollars for treatment and to address the harms to our state. So for that reason, combined with the fact that there is no actual accountability for these companies, were key reasons why I rejected it.

CHANG: OK. Well, let's talk about that because I'm curious, what do you think you can get out of a full-blown trial at this point that that settlement offer could not give you? Is it just more money or is there something else?

FERGUSON: We do think there should be more money. But there is something else, and that something else is the many conversations I've had with Washingtonians since we filed this lawsuit - parents who lost their child, for example, to opioid addiction - where they say, hey; the money's important, but what I really want, Bob, is to be able to walk into a courtroom someday and see these individuals testify under oath about what they knew and when they knew it, why they made the decisions they did and to hear a jury or a judge say what they did was wrong, that they broke the law. So there is something more than money here at stake. And that word is, frankly, accountability. And that's what's lacking in that settlement.

CHANG: Well, I want to talk about a legal theory that's been used in a lot of opioid litigation so far. States have been arguing that, you know, these big drug makers and distributors created what's called a public nuisance by flooding communities with prescription opioids. And because of that, they should be liable for billions of dollars. But as you well know, this month, a judge in California and the Oklahoma state Supreme Court both rejected this public nuisance argument. I understand you are also using public nuisance as a theory in your lawsuit. So how confident are you that this legal strategy will be effective here?

FERGUSON: We're very confident. A couple quick points - No. 1 is it's really apples and oranges. Each state has different laws, and so we believe the laws in Washington are robust and strong and that our cases are strong. In addition, the facts in our case are unique. So as an example, these three distributors distributed more opioid prescriptions, not pills, more prescriptions, than there are people in a dozen counties in our state. I don't think you have to have a Ph.D. in investigations to know that what they did was wrong, what they did was ignore the red flags and pursued profits over following the law.

CHANG: Well, what happens if you lose that trial? Is there a risk that people in Washington will get nothing after all is said and done?

FERGUSON: Of course, there's uncertainty in going to a trial. There's no question about that. But one thing I believe in is that the people in the state of Washington deserve their day in court. And is there a risk associated with that? You bet. But we feel very confident in our case, and I believe it's important that at some point these companies have to walk into a courtroom and try and defend their actions.

CHANG: But can we talk about this idea of accountability? Because what does accountability mean at this point after so many lives have been lost and the lives that are still with us have been destroyed in so many cases? What more beyond money do you think is needed to achieve actual accountability here?

FERGUSON: Well, there's a couple of things. So No. 1, more money than that settlement offer is important to actually get the resources we need as a state to provide more resources for treatment and prevention. But I would not underestimate the importance of accountability in the sense that a judge says what these companies did was wrong. Keep in mind that sum that we've been talking about, it has zero accountability. Those companies do not acknowledge they broke the law, do not even issue an apology for what has happened. And to me, that is unacceptable.

CHANG: Washington state attorney general Bob Ferguson, thank you very much for being with us today.

FERGUSON: Thank you so much, really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.