A Cleveland federal jury has ruled that CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, which operate thousands of pharmacies across the U.S., are responsible for spreading the opioid addiction epidemic in two Ohio counties, a ruling that could have a major impact, out of thousands of lawsuits filed against pharmacy chains .
Lawyers in Lake and Trump County in northeast Ohio claimed the chains had failed to stop painkillers from flooding the counties and also had not prevented the sale of drugs based on fake prescriptions.
The districts claimed that by easing the opioid crisis, the pharmacy companies had caused a nuisance to the public. In each of the counties said the crisis cost nearly $ 1 billion in costs related to law enforcement, social services and the courts.
The ruling in this case, which may signal direction in other lawsuits, will be scrutinized by attorneys elsewhere where parallel lawsuits have been filed against drug manufacturers and the chains that distribute them.
“Wake-up call coming too late”
Lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the counties have issued a joint statement calling the sentence a “wake-up call that comes too late.”
“For decades, pharmacy chains watched from the sidelines as the bullets that flowed out of the branches caused damage and they did not take action as required by law,” the lawyers said. “Instead, these companies responded by opening more branches, flooding communities with pills and facilitating the flow of opioids into an illegal secondary market.”
Michael Dangelis, a spokesman for the CVS network, said the company did not agree at all with the sentence. “Pharmacists provide drugs according to legal prescriptions registered by licensed physicians who prescribe legal substances, with FDA approval, for the treatment of patients who need them,” he said. “We are already looking beyond the sentence to the petition in this case, including the improper use of the Public Harassment Act.”
Fraser Engerman, a spokesman for the Wallgreens Boots Alliance, said the company was planning to file a petition and that he believed the court erred in allowing the case to be tried by a jury.
“As we said during the proceedings, we never produced or marketed opioids nor did we distribute them to the ‘pill factories’ and the online pharmacies that triggered the crisis,” Engerman said in a statement. “The plaintiffs’ attempt to resolve the opioid crisis by an unprecedented extension of the Public Harassment Act is erroneous and unsustainable.”
The Walmart chain also said it would petition. “Prosecutors’ lawyers have sued Walmart for deep pockets while ignoring the real causes of the opioid crisis – such as doctors who were ‘pill factories’, illegal drugs and regulators who fell asleep on duty,” the company said in a statement.
Walmart also said the prosecution’s lawyers “wrongly argued that pharmacists should make a second guess after doctors, in a way that the law as it stands does not require.”
Shares of the three chains, which operate thousands of pharmacies across the U.S., remained stable in Tuesday afternoon trading.
The jury only made an assessment of the liability in this lawsuit. District Judge Dan Polster, who presided over the six-week Cleveland trial, will determine how much the companies will have to pay to cure the public nuisance in both counties.
The judge combined lawsuits filed by more than 3,000 communities against drug manufacturers, distributors and pharmacists, selecting some cases as representing others.
The latest line of defense to prevent the spread of addiction
District attorneys argued that pharmacies were the last line of defense to prevent the spread of addiction in communities. Defense attorneys responded that the companies tried to stop the bullets from being distributed illegally, and that other factors should be blamed for the crisis.
Two other networks, Rite Aid Corp and Giant Eagle, have previously reached agreements with the two counties, but their terms have not been released. The companies denied that they had acted improperly in documents to the court.
More than 80 million opioid pills were sent to Tremble County, which has a population of less than 200,000, between 2006 and 2012, according to government data. More than 60 million opioid pills were sent to Lake District, which has a population of 230,000, during this period.
Opioid pills have been involved in more than 70% of nearly 841,000 deaths from overdose since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More than 100,000 fatal overdoses occurred during the 12 months ended April, and three-quarters of them involved opioid pills, mostly fentanyl, according to the CDC.
Earlier this month, the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned a $ 465 million opioid-related sentence in a lawsuit filed against Johnson & Johnson. The tribunal found that the Public Harassment Act was not applicable to “the manufacture, marketing and sale of prescription opioids.”
Earlier this month, a California judge ruled in a case in which he claimed that the drug makers had caused the opioid crisis in the state, that they were not responsible for the crisis.
In another case in West Virginia, where a county and one of the cities blamed the drug distributors for driving the opioid epidemic, the sentence has not yet been handed down.