Jury holds pharmacies accountable for role in opioid crisis

CLEVELAND (AP) – Pharmacies CVS, Walgreens and Walmart recklessly distributed massive amounts of pain relievers in two Ohio counties, a federal jury said on Tuesday in a verdict that could set the tone for city and county governments Americans who want to hold pharmacies accountable for their roles in the opioid crisis.

Lake and Trumbull counties have slammed the three drugstore chains for failing to stop the flood of pills that have caused hundreds of overdose deaths and cost each of the two counties an estimated $ 1 billion, their lawyer said. .

The amount of damages that pharmacies must pay will be decided in the spring by a federal judge.

It was the first time drug companies have completed a lawsuit defending themselves in a drug crisis that has killed half a million Americans in the past two decades.

The counties were able to convince the jury that pharmacies played a disproportionate role in creating a public nuisance in the way they dispense pain relievers in their communities.

“Pharmacies are required by law to be diligent in drug trafficking. This case should be a wake-up call that failure will not be accepted, ”said Mark Lanier, county attorney.

“The jury rang a bell that should be heard in every drugstore in America,” Lanier said.

Lawyers for the three drugstore chains maintained they had policies to stem the flow of pills when their pharmacists had concerns and would notify authorities of suspicious orders from doctors. They also said that it was the doctors who controlled the number of pills prescribed for legitimate medical needs.

Spokesmen for CVSHealth and Walgreen Co. said the companies disagreed with the verdict and would appeal.

“As the complainants’ own experts have testified, there are many factors that have contributed to the problem of opioid abuse, and resolving this problem will require the participation of all stakeholders in our health care system and of all stakeholders. members of our community, ”CVS spokesperson Mike DeAngelis said in a statement.

Walgreen spokesman Fraser Engerman said the company felt the court had erred “in allowing the case to go to a jury on a flawed legal theory that is inconsistent with Ohio law “.

“As we have said throughout this process, we have never manufactured or marketed opioids and we have not distributed them to the ‘pill mills’ and online pharmacies that have fueled this crisis,” Engerman said in a statement. “The plaintiffs’ attempt to resolve the opioid crisis with an unprecedented expansion of public nuisance law is flawed and unsustainable. “

Two other chains – Rite Aid and Giant Eagle – had already settled lawsuits along with the two counties of Ohio.

Lanier said during the trial that pharmacies try to blame everyone but themselves.

The opioid crisis has engulfed courts, social service agencies and law enforcement in the Ohio blue collar corner east of Cleveland, leaving behind heartbroken families and babies born of drug-addicted mothers, Lanier told jurors.

About 80 million prescription pain relievers were dispensed in Trumbull County alone between 2012 and 2016, or the equivalent of 400 for every resident.

In Lake County, some 61 million tablets were distributed during this period.

The increase in the number of doctors prescribing pain relievers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone came at a time when medical groups began to recognize that patients have a right to be treated for pain, Kaspar Stoffelmayr said. , attorney for Walgreens, at the start of the trial.

The problem, he said, was that “the drug makers tricked the doctors into writing way too many pills.”

Counties have said pharmacies should be the last line of defense in preventing pills from falling into the wrong hands.

They haven’t hired or trained enough pharmacists and technicians to prevent this from happening and haven’t put in place systems that can flag suspicious orders, Lanier said.

The trial before U.S. District Judge Dan Polster in Cleveland was part of a larger constellation of federal opioid lawsuits – about 3,000 in total – that have been consolidated under the judge’s oversight. Other cases move forward in state courts.

Kevin Roy, public policy manager at Shatterproof, an organization that advocates for solutions to drug addiction, said the verdict could cause pharmacies to follow the path of large distribution companies and some drugmakers that have entered into national regulations. on cases of opioids worth billions.

So far, no pharmacy has reached an agreement nationwide.

“It’s a signal that the public, at least in some places, feels there has been exposure and needs to be fixed,” Roy said.

The local government lawyer committee suing the pharmaceutical industry in federal courts called Tuesday’s verdict a “landmark victory.”

“For decades, drugstore chains have watched the pills that came out of their doors cause damage and failed to take action required by law,” the complainants’ executive committee said in a statement. “Instead, these companies responded by opening more locations, flooding communities with pills, and facilitating the flow of opioids to an illegal aftermarket. The judgment rendered today against Walmart, Walgreens and CVS represents the delay in calculating their complicity in creating a public nuisance.

Government claims against drug manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies depend on state and local public nuisance laws.

Roy noted that the courts have not been consistent as to whether these laws apply to such cases. “There have been a variety of different decisions lately that should give us reason to be careful about what that really means in the big project,” he said.

Two recent decisions have gone against the theory. And more and more cases are moving towards decisions.

Lawsuits against drugmakers in New York and distribution companies in Washington state are in progress now. A lawsuit over claims against distribution companies in West Virginia is over, but the judge has yet to render a verdict.

Earlier in November, a California judge ruled in favor of the major drugmakers in a lawsuit with three counties and the city of Oakland. The judge said governments had failed to prove drug companies were using deceptive marketing to increase unnecessary opioid prescriptions and create a public nuisance.

Also in November, the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned a 2019 judgment for $ 465 million in a state lawsuit against drugmaker Johnson & Johnson.

Other lawsuits resulted in big settlements or settlement proposals before the trials were completed.

The jury’s decision in Cleveland had little effect on inventory at CVS, Walgreens and Walmart. Shares of all three companies rose on Tuesday. Shares of CVS and Walgreens have risen 36% and 19% respectively this year.

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Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, contributed to this report.

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