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

Lake and Trumbull counties blamed the three chain pharmacies for not stopping the flood of pills that caused hundreds of overdose deaths and cost each of the two counties about $1 billion, said their attorney, who in court compared the pharmacies’ dispensing to a gumball machine.

Federal judges will determine how much pharmacy companies must pay for damages in spring.

It’s the first time pharmacy companies completed a trial to defend themselves in a drug crisisOver the past 20 years, that has killed half-million Americans.

They convinced the jury that pharmacies were an enormous nuisance because of the way they dispenssed pain medication to their residents.

“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.

“The jury sounded a bell that should be heard through all pharmacies in America,” Lanier said.

This photo, taken Nov. 17, 2021 near Warren, Ohio, shows a car entering Trumbull county.
via Associated Press

Lawyers representing the pharmacie chains claimed they had policies that would stop pill flow when pharmacists raised concerns. They also reported suspicious orders to authorities. The pharmacists also stated that it was the doctors who determined how many prescriptions were for medically legitimate reasons.

CVSHealth, Walgreen Co., and Walmart Inc. all stated they are appealing.

Walmart said in a statement that the counties’ attorneys sued “in search of deep pockets while ignoring the real causes of the opioid crisis — such as pill mill doctors, illegal drugs, and regulators asleep at the switch — and they wrongly claimed pharmacists must second-guess doctors in a way the law never intended and many federal and state health regulators say interferes with the doctor-patient relationship.”

Walgreen spokesperson Fraser Engerman characterized the case as an unsustainable effort “to resolve the opioid crisis with an unprecedented expansion of public nuisance law.”

The company “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.

A statement from CVS spokesperson Mike DeAngelis noted: “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.”

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

Lanier stated during trial, that all pharmacies attempted to blame others but themselves.

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.

Roughly 80 million prescription painkillers were dispensed in Trumbull County alone between 2012 and 2016 — equivalent to 400 for every resident. Some 61,000,000 pills were distributed in Lake County during this period.

As medical groups started to recognize that pain patients are entitled to pain treatment, the rise in doctors prescribing pain medication such as hydrocodone or oxycodone was due, Kaspar Stoffelmayr (walgreens attorney) stated at the beginning of the trial.

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

These counties stated that pharmacies were the best line of defense in order to stop the drugs from reaching the wrong people.

They didn’t hire enough pharmacists and technicians or train them to stop that from happening and failed to implement systems that could flag suspicious orders, Lanier said.

The committee of lawyers for the local governments suing the drug industry in federal courts called Tuesday’s verdict “a milestone victory” and “overdue reckoning.”

“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 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 trial before U.S. District Judge Dan Polster in Cleveland was part of a broader constellation of about 3,000 federal opioid lawsuits consolidated under the judge’s supervision. Others cases continue to move forward in state courts.

Shatterproof’s chief policy officer Kevin Roy said that the verdict may encourage pharmacies to take the same path as major drug distributors and other drugmakers who have settled millions of cases involving opioid addiction. No pharmacy has yet reached a national 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.

Drug distributors, drugmakers and pharmacists are subject to state and local laws of public nuisance.

Roy noted that courts haven’t been consistent on whether those laws apply to such cases. “There’s been a variety of different decisions lately that should give us reason to be cautious about what this really means in the grand scheme,” he said.

Recent rulings have ruled against this theory in two cases. There are more cases moving towards rulings.

New York Drugmakers Trials and Distribution Companies in New York Washington stateThey are currently in progress. A trial of claims against distribution companies in West Virginia wrapped up, but the judge hasn’t given a verdict.

A California judge has ruled in favor a top pharmaceutical manufacturer in a suit with three California counties as well as the City of Oakland. The judge said the governments hadn’t proven that the pharmaceutical companies used deceptive marketing to increase unnecessary opioid prescriptions and create a public nuisance.

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

Some lawsuits resulted or were proposed to settle before trial was completed.

The jury’s decision in Cleveland had little effect on the stock of CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, which all closed higher Tuesday on Wall Street.


Geoff Mulvihill (Associated Press, Cherry Hill), New Jersey contributed to the report.


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