Jury holds pharmacies responsible for their role in opioid crisis
CLEVELAND — 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.
How much the pharmacies must pay in damages will be decided in the spring by a federal judge.
It’s the first time pharmacy companies completed a trial to defend themselves in a drug crisis that killed a half-million Americans over the past two decades.
The counties convinced the jury the pharmacies played an outsized role in creating a public nuisance in the way they dispensed pain medication into their communities.
“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.
Attorneys for the pharmacy chains maintained they had policies to stem the flow of pills when their pharmacists had concerns and would notify authorities about suspicious orders from doctors. They also said it was doctors who controlled how many pills were prescribed for legitimate medical needs.
CVSHealth, Walgreen Co. and Walmart Inc. said they will appeal.
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 doctorpatient relationship.”
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 lawsuits with the two Ohio counties.