Written by Breanna Hardy
NEW YORK (AP) — Drugmaker Teva Pharmaceuticals is responsible for contributing to the opioid crisis, a suburban New York jury ruled Thursday in one of few verdicts so far among thousands of lawsuits nationwide over the painkillers.
A separate trial will follow to determine what Teva will have to pay in the case, part of a sweeping lawsuit that New York Attorney General Letitia James brought against drug companies.
In Thursday’s verdict, a Suffolk County jury found the drug company played a role in what is legally termed a public nuisance but had lethal consequences — an opioid use epidemic linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S. in the past two decades.
“Teva Pharmaceuticals USA and others misled the American people about the true dangers of opioids,” James, a Democrat, said in a news release. “Today, we took a significant step in righting the wrongs this country has collectively experienced over the last two decades.”
Teva, which makes medications using the powerful opioid fentanyl that are approved for some cancer patients, said it “strongly disagrees” with the verdict and plans to appeal.
“The plaintiffs presented no evidence of medically unnecessary prescriptions, suspicious or diverted orders, no evidence of oversupply” by Teva and didn’t show that Teva’s marketing caused harm to New Yorkers, the company said in a statement.
Around the country, state and local governments, Native American tribes, unions, school districts and others have taken on the drug industry in lawsuits over the powerful painkillers.
New York’s lawsuit, filed in 2019, targeted several opioid producers and distributors, companies that buy medications in bulk and sell them to pharmacies. Among the defendants were OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and members of the billionaire family that controls it.
The suit accused drug companies of breaching their legal duties “to profiteer from the plague they knew would be unleashed.” The state said that drug manufacturers collaborated to mislead people and downplay the serious risks of opioid addiction, and that drug distributors skirted systems meant to limit orders for painkillers.
New York said the companies’ conduct cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in addiction treatment bills and other expenses.
Teva was the sole manufacturing defendant left in the suit after other parties settled, most recently Allergan Finance LLC in December. The various settlements have netted New York up to $1.5 billion.
The trial started months ago. The jury began deliberating Dec. 14, taking some days off for Christmas.
Teva and the regional drug distribution company Anda were also defendants in a Suffolk County lawsuit.
Elsewhere, only a few opioid cases have gone to verdicts to date, with no clear consensus on outcomes.
An Oklahoma judge ruled against drugmaker Johnson & Johnson in 2019, but the state’s supreme court overturned that decision in November.
A California judge in November ruled in favor of drugmakers — including Teva — and a federal jury in Cleveland sided with two Ohio county governments that had claims against pharmacy chains.
A trial has been completed but a judge has not yet ruled in a West Virginia case, and a trial is ongoing in Washington state. Thousands of other cases are in the process of heading to trial.
There have also been settlements. Some of the biggest industry names — such as distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson and drugmakers Johnson & Johnson, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals — have reached nationwide settlements with a cumulative value potentially well over $30 billion. Most of the money is being directed to fight the epidemic.
But most of those deals have not been finalized, and there has been one very big reversal. In mid-December, a federal judge rejected OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma’s sweeping deal to settle thousands of lawsuits over the toll of opioids.
This story has been corrected to show that a jury, not a judge, decided the case in Cleveland. Associated Press writer Deepti Hajela contributed to this report.