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Ohio jury blames CVS, Walgreens and Walmart pharmacies for opioid crisis

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In a first, a federal jury has found three pharmacies liable for their role in distributing opioids — a verdict that could set the tone for U.S. city and county governments that want to hold pharmacies accountable for contributing to the opioid crisis.

CVS, Walgreens and Walmart pharmacies recklessly distributed massive quantities of pain pills in two Ohio counties, a federal jury said Tuesday. Lake and Trumbull counties blamed the three chain pharmacies for dispensing a flood of pills that caused hundreds of overdose deaths and cost each of the counties more than $1 billion, their attorney said.

A federal judge will determine how much the pharmacies must pay in damages in the next phase of the trial, set to take place in the spring. 

"This is a landmark decision because it's the first time the issues of the opioid epidemic have been tried against these national chain pharmacies," Mark Lanier, a lawyer for the counties, said during a press conference Tuesday. "The jury was able to assess those national measures that have been put in place by those pharmaceutical chains and shout out from the rooftops, 'inadequate,'" Lanier added. 

The verdict will pave the way for remedies to address the lingering crisis in the two Ohio counties.

It was the first time pharmacy companies had completed a trial to defend themselves in a drug crisis that has killed a half-million Americans over the past two decades.

The counties were able to convince the jury that the pharmacies played an outsized role in creating a public nuisance by not adequately restricting the way they dispensed pain medication.

"The law requires pharmacies to be diligent in dealing drugs. This case should be a wake-up call that failure will not be accepted," Lanier said.

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"The jury sounded a bell that should be heard through all pharmacies in America," Lanier added.

Attorneys for the three pharmacy chains maintained they had policies to stem the flow of pills when their pharmacists had any concerns, and they would notify authorities about suspicious orders from doctors, who controlled the quantity of pills that were prescribed for legitimate medical needs.

Spokespeople for CVSHealth and Walgreen Co. said the companies disagree with the verdict and will appeal.

"As plaintiffs' own experts testified, many factors have contributed to the opioid abuse issue, and solving this problem will require involvement from all stakeholders in our health care system and all members of our community," CVS spokesperson Mike DeAngelis said in a statement.

"We will appeal this flawed verdict, which is a reflection of a trial that was engineered to favor the plaintiffs' attorneys and was riddled with remarkable legal and factual mistakes," Walmart said in a statement. Among those problems, one juror violated court rules by "conducting her own research and sharing it with other jurors," the company added.

"Flawed legal theory"

Walgreen spokesperson Fraser Engerman said the company believes the court erred "in allowing the case to go before a jury on a flawed legal theory that is inconsistent with Ohio law."

"As we have said throughout this process, we never manufactured or marketed opioids nor did we distribute them to the 'pill mills' and internet pharmacies that 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 misguided and unsustainable."

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

Lanier during the trial accused the pharmacies of shifting the blame onto other parties. 

The opioid crisis has overwhelmed courts, social services agencies and law enforcement in Ohio's blue-collar corner east of Cleveland, leaving behind heartbroken families and babies born to addicted mothers, Lanier told jurors.

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400 pills per resident

Roughly 80 million prescription painkillers — or 400 pills per resident — were dispensed in Trumbull County between 2012 and 2016.

In Lake County, some 61 million pills were distributed over the same period.

Physicians increasingly began prescribing pain medications such as oxycodone and hydrocodone when medical groups started to recognize patients' rights to be treated for pain, Kaspar Stoffelmayr, an attorney for Walgreens, said at the opening of the trial.

The problem, he said, was that "pharmaceutical manufacturers tricked doctors into writing way too many pills."

The counties argued that pharmacies were the last line of defense in preventing the pills from getting into the wrong hands.

They didn't hire enough pharmacists and technicians or adequately train them to prevent abuse, and failed to implement systems that could flag suspicious orders, Lanier said.

The trial before U.S. District Judge Dan Polster in Cleveland was part of a broader constellation of roughly 3,000 federal opioid lawsuits that have been consolidated under the judge's supervision. Other cases are moving ahead in state courts.

"A milestone victory"

Kevin Roy, chief public policy officer at Shatterproof, an organization that advocates for solutions to addiction, said the verdict could lead pharmacies to follow the path of major distribution companies and drugmakers that have settled national opioid cases for billions of dollars.

So far, no pharmacy has reached a nationwide settlement.

"It's a signal that the public, at least in select places, feels that there's been exposure and needs to be remedied," Roy said.

The plaintiffs' lawyers called Tuesday's verdict "a milestone victory."

"For decades, pharmacy chains have watched as the pills flowing out of their doors cause harm and failed to take action as required by law," the plaintiffs' executive committee said in a statement. "Instead, these companies responded by opening up more locations, flooding communities with pills, and facilitating the flow of opioids into an illegal, secondary market. The judgment today against Walmart, Walgreens and CVS represents the overdue reckoning for their complicity in creating a public nuisance."

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Other trials underway

Trials against drugmakers in New York and distribution companies in Washington state are currently underway. A trial of claims against distribution companies in West Virginia has concluded, but the judge has not yet issued a verdict.

Earlier in November, a California judge sided with top drug manufacturers in a lawsuit with three counties and the city of Oakland. The judge said the governments failed to prove that the pharmaceutical companies used deceptive marketing to increase unnecessary opioid prescriptions and create a public nuisance.

Also in November, Oklahoma's supreme court overturned a 2019 judgment for $465 million in a suit brought by the state against drugmaker Johnson & Johnson.

The jury's decision in Cleveland barely moved the pharmacies' stock prices. Shares of all three companies rose Tuesday. Shares of CVS and Walgreens are up by 36% and 19% this year, respectively.

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