Photo by Mike Mozart/Flickr.

A West Virginia court has ordered Walmart to hand over documents about investigations into its sales of prescription opioids.

The retail giant must provide the information to lawyers representing West Virginia counties, cities, towns and hospitals suing the company for its role in the opioid crisis, according to a recent ruling by former Eastern Panhandle circuit judge Christopher Wilkes, who’s acting as discovery commissioner in the case. 

Walmart had previously told the West Virginia court that the company was the subject of an ongoing U.S. Justice Department investigation into its opioid practices. But the retailer notified another court that the inquiry had concluded.   

“Walmart’s inconsistent representations to this court and others concerning the status of  the DOJ’s criminal investigation into it is concerning, to say the least,” Wilkes said in his ruling.

Last week, Walmart filed a preemptive lawsuit against the Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration, alleging those agencies failed to police the doctors who wrote prescriptions that Walmart’s pharmacies filled.

“In other words, defendants want to blame Walmart for continuing to fill purportedly bad prescriptions written by doctors that the DEA and state regulators enabled to write those prescriptions in the first place and continue to stand by today,” the suit said.

In late March, ProPublica, a nonprofit news outlet that partners with Mountain State Spotlight, was first to publish a story about the federal investigation into Walmart’s opioid sales. 

ProPublica reported that federal prosecutors in east Texas had spent years on the inquiry, pursuing criminal charges and plans to indict Walmart, but were told by senior Justice Department officials to back off after Walmart’s lawyers complained. Two months later, the U.S. attorney for the east Texas office resigned.

During the past several years, 34 local governments and 26 hospitals in West Virginia have filed lawsuits against Walmart and other retailers with pharmacies, along with drug manufacturers and distributors. The suits allege that the companies fueled the opioid epidemic by flooding communities with an excessive number of prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.

The lawsuits have been consolidated and are being heard in Charleston by a “Mass Litigation Panel” of judges overseen by the state Supreme Court. Wilkes works with the panel to resolve disputes over the exchange of information by both sides.

From 2006 to 2014, Walmart pharmacies dispensed 20 million oxycodone pills and 67.7 million hydrocodone tablets across the state, according to DEA data. Walmart was the fourth largest oxycodone distributor and sixth largest hydrocodone retailer in West Virginia those years.

In late July, Walmart’s attorneys fought to keep documents about investigations out of the hands of the lawyers suing the company. The retail giant argued that the inquiries were irrelevant to the lawsuits, and that the request for documents was “overly burdensome.”

In his order, Wilkes concluded that the investigative materials were “highly relevant.”

“Any investigation that showed Walmart’s policies were failing to prevent diversion in one state is evidence that Walmart knew those policies would fail in West Virginia,” Wilkes said in the ruling.  

West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation. The oversupply of opioid pain medications — triggered by doctors writing too many prescriptions — is widely believed to have started the opioid epidemic and led to a record number of fatal overdoses.

Walmart has until Nov. 23 to hand over the information about the federal investigation — and any other probes — into the company’s opioid sales.

A trial has been scheduled to start in March 2021.

Walmart is West Virginia’s second largest private employer, behind only West Virginia University Medicine.

Eric Eyre, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting in 2017 for stories on the opioid crisis, was formerly a senior investigative reporter at Mountain State Spotlight. He is the author...