Federal jury finds pharmacy chains responsible for Ohio opioid crisis

A federal jury in Cleveland on Tuesday found three of the nation's largest pharmacy chains, Walgreens, CVS and Walmart, helped fuel the opioid crisis in two Ohio counties.

This decision was the first ever ruling against the retail pharmacy industry, and could set the tone for countless other lawsuits across the country that seek to hold pharmacies responsible for the flood of highly addictive opioid pills into communities. The crisis has killed more than half a million Americans to date.

Jurors concluded that the actions by the pharmacy chains helped create a "public nuisance," a strategy that is being used by plaintiffs in thousands of other lawsuits nationwide. 

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The public nuisance argument has already been rejected twice this month in separate trials against opioid manufacturers. The Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned a verdict against Johnson & Johnson, and a judge in California similarly ruled Allergan, Endo, Johnson & Johnson and Teva could not be held liable, because the companies had no control over how patients used their products once they reached the market.

It's now up to District Judge Dan Polster to decide how much the companies should pay Ohio’s Lake and Trumbull counties. The plaintiffs are seeking upwards of $1 billion for each county, but since the companies are appealing the verdict, it may be some time before the counties see any funds. 

"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. Instead, these companies responded by opening up more locations, flooding communities with pills, and facilitating the flow of opioids into an illegal, secondary market," a joint statement from the plaintiffs attorneys said. 

"The judgment today against Walmart, Walgreens and CVS represents the overdue reckoning for their complicity in creating a public nuisance."

Polster is presiding over a multidistrict lawsuit involving more than 3,000 cases brought against drugmakers, distributors and pharmacies by local governments. Lake and Trumbull counties were selected as a test case, or bellwether, of public nuisance claims against pharmacies.

CVS said it strongly disagreed with the decision.

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"[T]he 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," spokesman Mike DeAngelis said in a statement.

Walmart also said it would appeal, saying the case was "riddled with remarkable legal and factual mistakes."

A Walgreens spokesman also said the company would appeal.

"We are disappointed with the outcome of this trial. The facts and the law do not support the verdict," said spokesman Fraser Engerman. "The plaintiffs’ attempt to resolve the opioid crisis with an unprecedented expansion of public nuisance law is misguided and unsustainable."

Updated at 5:15 p.m.