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News brief: Unite the Right verdict, opioid trial, holiday air travel

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A jury is ordering far-right groups and individuals to pay $25 million in damages. This is for their part in the deadly Unite the Right rally that happened in Virginia.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Back in 2017. Roberta Kaplan represented the plaintiffs who sued white nationalists.

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ROBERTA KAPLAN: No one will ever bring violence to the streets of Charlottesville, Va., ever again because they now know what will happen if they do.

INSKEEP: The jury said all the white supremacists who were sued conspired before the rally. Five people were found responsible for violence.

MARTIN: Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism for NPR, and she joins us now. Odette, thanks for being here.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Sure thing.

MARTIN: So all the plaintiffs in this case said that they suffered some kind of injury or long-standing pain from that day, that night also, back in 2017, right?

YOUSEF: That's right, Rachel. You know, you'll recall, you know, this was the largest convening of white nationalists and neo-Nazis that this country has seen in many decades. You'll remember televised images of a torchlight march where young white men were chanting the Jews will not replace us and then violence at the rally the next day where ultimately one neo-Nazi ran a vehicle into a crowd of counter protesters and killed Heather Heyer. You know, the retelling of all this, I think, has been challenging for the plaintiffs. But with this verdict, they say they're finally feeling tremendously relieved and that justice has been served and maybe healing can begin.

MARTIN: But none of these white nationalists are going to jail though, right?

YOUSEF: No. This was a civil case, not a criminal one. So each of these individual defendants has been ordered to pay at least half a million dollars in damages. And one of them, the man who ran his vehicle into the crowd, was assessed $12 million. One civil rights lawyer told me that these amounts are, you know, high enough that they can't just chalk this off as a cost of doing business as a white nationalist. You know, they might be paying this down for the rest of their lives.

MARTIN: What did we learn from this trial about the way that white nationalists operate? Because there were, like, a lot of disparate groups.

YOUSEF: Yeah. You know, this was so interesting. It ended up - this trial ended up being almost like an extremism 101 crash course, Rachel. You know, I spoke with Amy Spitalnick. She's the executive director of Integrity First for America, which is the civil rights nonprofit behind the lawsuit. And she told me this was an important function of the trial.

AMY SPITALNICK: We had expert witnesses who explained not just to the jury but to the world who is following along how these extremists use tools and tactics like plausible deniability, like optics, the fact that they claim that they're joking so often, as part of a very deliberate strategy that is central to their violence.

YOUSEF: So to explain, you know, experts were able to get into how these defendants normalized discussions of violence against Jewish and Black people, for example, by using internet memes. So this idea of trying to make something horrific look kind of like a joke so that they could deny intent to do harm, but all the while, the intent really was understood.

MARTIN: So there hasn't been a public trial of extremists like this in a whole lot of years. How prepared is the system to take on these kinds of cases?

YOUSEF: Well, there were moments of real concern that some defendants and their supporters were using this trial, Rachel, as a stage to air their messages and ideologies. You know, at one point, the conference line that media listen in on was taken over by neo-Nazis. There was even a security concern at one point when some of the defendants appeared to be pressing the plaintiffs on the witness stand for details about the plaintiffs' friends, apparently with the aim of getting those names out to their followers to target and harass. All this kind of ties back to the fact that these extremists reject the validity of America's court system. They see the courts as part of a conspiracy and as a joke. So there may be lessons here about how judges and lawyers might be educated to know that these parties won't be entering the courtroom in good faith.

MARTIN: NPR's Odette Yousef, thank you.

YOUSEF: Thank you.

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MARTIN: OK. Another trial, another big decision. This one in Ohio focuses on opioids and three of the country's biggest pharmacy chains.

INSKEEP: A federal jury found CVS, Walgreens and Walmart responsible for their roles in the opioid crisis. This verdict may offer insights into what to expect from similar lawsuits around the country. And it reflects on a continuing issue. The CDC reported a record number of opioid overdose deaths during the pandemic.

MARTIN: NPR's Brian Mann joins us now. Brian, what did these jurors say?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, really, Rachel, this is the first jury to hold pharmacy chains accountable for the opioid crisis. Mark Lanier is one of the lead attorneys who represents communities near Cleveland, Ohio, at the center of this case, and he said the verdict made it clear that CVS, Walgreens and Walmart didn't do enough to keep their customers safe as more and more of these highly addictive opioid pills went out the door.

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MARK LANIER: Through this trial, the jury was able to assess those national measures that have been put in place by these pharmaceutical chains and shout out from the rooftops inadequate.

MANN: So now a separate legal process will take place in federal court to determine how big the payouts to these communities will be. It could top a billion dollars, could go as high as $2 billion.

MARTIN: What was the company's defense?

MANN: Well, you know, what Walmart, CVS and Walgreens have said all along is that they did nothing wrong in all of this and say they dispensed these pills only after doctors wrote prescriptions. They say government regulators are more to blame for this crisis. And they have promised to appeal this verdict. But this is clearly a tough moment, Rachel, for some of the most high-profile companies in America. This verdict ties them directly to this deadly and ongoing opioid crisis.

MARTIN: So, Brian, how does this case in Ohio connect to - there are so many other opioid lawsuits out there, right?

MANN: Yeah, it's kind of never ending. And I mentioned this is a landmark ruling, the first time pharmacy chains have been held liable in this way. It's also seen as a validation of a legal argument that's being used in a lot of these lawsuits. And that's the idea that if a company does something that creates what's called a public nuisance, it should then be liable for the cost of cleaning it up. That public nuisance argument has kind of taken a beating in recent state court decisions in California and Oklahoma. In those cases, courts rejected it. So communities suing the drug industry over opioids really needed a win, and that's what they got yesterday in Ohio.

MARTIN: So what do these communities say they want to do with the money now?

MANN: Yeah, this part's important. You know, this court case comes at a time when the opioid epidemic is raging. Yesterday, Jason Boyd, who's a county administrator in Lake County near Cleveland - that's one of the communities hit hard by opioids - he says this money will go to help pay for programs designed to help families in neighborhoods struggling with addiction.

JASON BOYD: Today's news is only going to accelerate our efforts to provide the best services we can to our family, our children, our foster parent associations, our criminal justice system.

MANN: And really, Rachel, communities all over the U.S. say they need this kind of money to cope with this opioid crisis. We're seeing the largest number of opioid deaths ever right now. So there's a lot at stake here for people with addiction who need help. And also as we're seeing for the drug industry itself a lot of legal peril ahead as more and more of these opioid lawsuits move forward.

MARTIN: NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann. Brian, thanks.

MANN: Thank you.

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MARTIN: All right. If you work at TSA or at any airport in any capacity, today is your Super Bowl. You've trained for this all year. You've got your full team on the floor, and you are ready to get the people where they need to go.

INSKEEP: Now that's how it is on the day before Thanksgiving even in a normal year, and this is no normal year because millions of Americans are moving again after a pause during last Thanksgiving because of the pandemic.

MARTIN: All right. Washington Post transportation reporter Ian Duncan knows everything there is to know about the travel crush at the holidays. Hey, Ian.

IAN DUNCAN: Hi, how you doing?

MARTIN: I'm doing well. I survived. I happened to be in a couple of airports yesterday traveling back from across the country. And it was just Tuesday, Ian, of the holiday week, and it was insane (laughter).

DUNCAN: Yeah. I mean, it's already been really busy. The TSA kind of puts out numbers of people that travel every day, and they've already broken a couple of sort of pandemic-era records. So we're seeing 2 million people plus a day going through airports, which is - it's not quite back to where it might have been in 2019, but it's pretty close. And so people who might have seen, like, pictures last year of empty airports and empty planes, like, that's just not what it's like anymore. It's busy. It's full of people. You might have to wait at TSA for a little bit.

MARTIN: I mean, we should say, as you just noted, it's not even back to pre-pandemic levels. It's just if you were anywhere trying to get anywhere on a plane last year, it's such a notable difference. It's just the crush of humanity again, and it takes some emotional calibrating if you haven't been around that many people in a long time. So the question, Ian, I have - are airlines, airports, security screeners, are all these folks prepared for this moment?

DUNCAN: That's the big question, really, I mean, because we saw over the summer and earlier in the fall, like, some airlines had these real meltdowns where they got in a bad spot usually because of some bad weather and then they just weren't quite able to recover their operations. And so you saw thousands of flights canceled. So everyone is watching to see will there be one of those things this week? The airlines say that we've brought on staff, we've brought on financial incentives to make people do overtime, so we're going to be ready. TSA says they're ready, too. But then when you talk to the labor unions that represent a lot of workers in aviation, they're a little bit more skeptical and think that things might be a bit tight and there's sort of potential for some problems.

MARTIN: Pilots on all my flights, Ian, came on the PA system to remind us about masks and asking all the passengers to treat one another with civility and respect. I mean, passengers acting out over the mask issue has made things tough for airport workers, right?

DUNCAN: Yeah. That's been one of the kind of real trends that we've seen this year. It's not so much last year. But the FAA has been trying to crack down on that and really reminding people, you know, you got to follow the rules or else you're going to get a pretty big fine. And - but it still seems to be a factor, and that's contributing to some of the staffing problems, too. Like, people don't want to go to work and be abused.

MARTIN: Right. So what can we do, I mean, as we're getting ready to go on trips to see family and friends besides pack our masks and pack our patience?

DUNCAN: I would book a parking spot because they're filling up at airports and just make sure you're familiar with what you need to do to get through TSA. You can bring hand sanitizer but not other liquids. Remember all those rules that you might have forgotten.

MARTIN: Washington Post transportation reporter Ian Duncan. Ian, Happy Thanksgiving to you, happy travel day.

DUNCAN: Happy Thanksgiving. Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.