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Walmart Faces Pension-Fund Suits Over Internal Opioid Files

Jef Feeley

(Bloomberg) -- Walmart Inc. illegally mishandled opioid painkillers sold through its in-store pharmacies for years, two pension funds contend in lawsuits seeking access to internal records of the world’s second-largest retailer.Media reports and information revealed in a mass of opioid lawsuits in federal court show how Walmart failed to comply with laws mandating monitoring of sales of the highly addictive painkillers, attorneys for the Norfolk County Retirement System and the Police and Fire Retirement System of Detroit said in their suits.Lawyers for states, cities and counties suing the chain to recoup billions of dollars spent dealing with the fallout from the U.S. opioid epidemic contend Walmart “failed to implement basic compliance controls to protect its pharmacies and drug distribution business from being used as cover for the illegal dissemination of opioids,” according to the complaints, filed Wednesday in Delaware Chancery Court.

“Walmart takes its responsibility to shareholders seriously,” Randy Hargrove, a company spokesman, said in an emailed statement. “There is no credible basis to conclude Walmart or its board engaged in any misconduct. We will respond in court as appropriate.”

Walmart and several U.S. pharmacy chains face a November trial before a federal jury in Cleveland in which states and municipalities will seek billions in damages for the companies’ alleged failure to recognize “red flags” about heavily repeated sales of the painkillers.The funds, which own Walmart shares, said evidence shows some executives of the giant retailer ensured a steady stream of opioids to so-called pill mills -- doctors’ practices that routinely wrote hundreds of prescriptions for opioid painkillers that were then used for illegal purposes.When the federal government moved to investigate and then prosecute the chain, Walmart used its political clout to “thwart any such enforcement action, causing career public servants to quit their jobs in frustration and disgust,” the funds alleged.

Granting access to the company’s internal files is justified because investors have reason to suspect Walmart executives violated legal duties to shareholders, according to the complaints. Bentonville, Arkansas-based Walmart is the world’s second-largest retailer behind Amazon Inc. based on “revenues, profits, assets and market value,” according to Forbes magazine.

Other Delaware judges have ordered companies involved in the opioid industry to turn over such documents. In January, Chancery Judge Travis Laster directed AmeriSourceBergen Corp., one of the largest U.S. drug distributors, to disclose files about its handling of the painkillers to investors. The Chesterbrook, Pennsylvania-based company is accused of turning a blind eye to excessive opioid orders to rack up billions in profits.

The Walmart cases are Norfolk County Retirement System v. Walmart Inc., 2020-0482, and Police and Fire Retirement System of Detroit v. Walmart Inc., 2020-0478, Delaware Chancery Court (Wilmington)

(Updates with company comment in fourth paragraph)

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