Federal jury holds pharmacy chains CVS, Walgreens and Walmart responsible for role in opioid crisis

A federal jury in Cleveland on Tuesday found that three of the nation’s largest pharmacy chains, CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, were liable for contributing to the opioid epidemic in two Ohio counties.

It marks the first time the retail segment of the drug industry has been held accountable in the decadeslong opioid epidemic. The case could set a precedent for other U.S. cities and counties looking to take legal action against corporations for any role they may have played in the opioid crisis.

The opioid drug crisis has killed a half-million Americans over the past two decades.

Attorneys for Lake and Trumbull counties in northeast Ohio persuaded the jury that CVS, Walgreens and Walmart failed to stop pain pills from flooding the counties or stopping false prescriptions from being filled, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The counties argued that by enabling the opioid crisis, the pharmacy companies created a public nuisance. Each county said the crisis cost them about $1 billion in expenses related to law enforcement, social services and courts, the WSJ reported.

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It's a legal argument that was rejected twice earlier this month by judges in California and Oklahoma in cases against opioid manufacturers.

How much the pharmacies must pay in damages will be decided in the spring by a federal judge.

Plaintiffs attorneys for the counties issued a joint statement calling the verdict an “overdue reckoning," according to the WSJ.

“The law requires pharmacies to be diligent in dealing drugs. This case should be a wake-up call that failure will not be accepted,” said Mark Lanier, an attorney for the counties, in a statement to media outlets.

A spokesman for CVS said the company "strongly disagrees" with the court's decision and plans to appeal, citing the misapplication of the "public nuisance" law.

"Pharmacists fill legal prescriptions written by DEA-licensed doctors who prescribe legal, FDA-approved substances to treat actual patients in need," a CVS spokesman said in a statement sent to Fierce Healthcare.

"We’re proud of the substantial work we’ve done to support our pharmacists in detecting illegitimate prescribing. But the simple facts are that opioid prescriptions are written by doctors, not pharmacists; opioid medications are made and marketed by manufacturers, not pharmacists; and our health care system depends on pharmacists to fill legitimate prescriptions that doctors deem necessary for their patients. We look forward to the appeals court review of this case, including the misapplication of public nuisance law," the spokesman said.

A spokesman for Walgreens issued the following statement: "We are disappointed with the outcome of this trial. The facts and the law do not support the verdict. We believe the trial court committed significant legal errors in allowing the case to go before a jury on a flawed legal theory that is inconsistent with Ohio law."

Walgreens contends that it never manufactured or marketed opioids nor distributed them to the “pill mills” and internet pharmacies that fueled this crisis, according to the spokesperson.

"The plaintiffs’ attempt to resolve the opioid crisis with an unprecedented expansion of public nuisance law is misguided and unsustainable. We look forward to the opportunity to address these issues on appeal before the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit," the spokesperson said.

In a statement posted to its website, Walmart said it plans to appeal the "flawed verdict," which the company claims is a "reflection of a trial that was engineered to favor the plaintiffs’ attorneys and was riddled with remarkable legal and factual mistakes."

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The verdict is out of step with courts around the country that have rejected plaintiffs’ novel “public nuisance” liability theories in opioid lawsuits in Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, California, Oklahoma, North Dakota and South Dakota, Walmart officials said in the statement.

Attorneys for the three pharmacy chains maintained they had policies to stem the flow of pills when their pharmacists had any concerns and would notify authorities about suspicious orders from doctors. They also said it was the doctors who controlled how many pills were being prescribed for legitimate medical needs.

The 12-member jury deliberated for five and a half days after a six-week trial.

Roughly 80 million prescription painkillers were dispensed in Trumbull County alone between 2012 and 2016—equivalent to 400 for every resident, CNBC reported. In Lake County, some 61 million pills were distributed during that period.

This past summer, Walgreens, Rite Aid, CVS Health and Walmart settled with two New York counties, Nassau and Suffolk, for a combined $26 million. In the Ohio case, Rite Aid and Giant Eagle, a regional chain, settled earlier for undisclosed sums, according to The New York Times.