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Federal data shows 76 billion opioid pills were distributed from 2006 to 2012. Photo by Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

No obligation to the public, opioid distributor tells lawyer

WASHINGTON — An executive at one of the nation’s largest drug distribution companies said under questioning recently that the business has no obligation to the public when it comes to the amount of prescription opioid painkillers it ships.

That’s one of the exchanges included in thousands of pages of court documents, including depositions and internal emails, made public this week in lawsuits brought against the pharmaceutical industry over the nation’s deadly opioid crisis.

In a testy line of questioning in a deposition earlier this year, Cardinal Health counsel Jennifer Norris was asked by a lawyer whether the company wants to “ensure that it does what it can to prevent the public from harm?”

She answered: “I don’t know that Cardinal owes a duty to the public regarding that.”

She went on to say, “Cardinal Health has an obligation to perform its duties in accordance with the law, the statute, regulations and guidance.”

A Cardinal spokeswoman said the company had no immediate comment Wednesday.

The deposition was held in connection with lawsuits brought by Ohio’s Cuyahoga and Summit counties against a group of drugmakers and distributors over the toll exacted by opioids. The case is scheduled for trial in October.

The counties are among some 2,000 state, local and tribal governments across the U.S. that are suing the industry over opioids, a class of drugs that includes prescription medications and illicit substances such as heroin and fentanyl.

All told, those drugs contributed to the deaths of more than 400,000 people in the U.S. from 2000 to last year, according to federal data.

The Ohio cases are the first scheduled to go trial in federal court and are intended to resolve issues common in other cases. The judge overseeing most of the opioid claims is encouraging the parties to reach an overarching settlement.

The latest documents came from filings in which both sides are seeking to have some issues resolved without going to trial. They include portions of depositions from company executives, reports from experts hired by both sides and internal company documents about opioid orders.

A short e-mail chain from Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, has one employee flagging an order at 4:15 p.m. on Oct. 27, 2009, from Cardinal Health because it was nearly twice as big as the customer’s usual 12-week order of a certain dosage. The order was worth close to $293,000.

It was approved at 4:16 p.m., the emails show.

Mulvihill reported from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

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