CVS, other pharmacy chains lose Ohio suit in first opioid epidemic trial

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A federal jury on Tuesday found that pharmacy chain operators CVS, Walgreens Boots Alliance and Walmart helped fuel an opioid epidemic in two Ohio counties, in the first trial the companies have faced over the US drug crisis.

Jurors in Cleveland federal court concluded that actions by the pharmacy chains helped create a public nuisance that resulted in an oversupply of addictive pain pills and the diversion of those opioids to the black market.

The verdict was confirmed by lawyers for the plaintiffs. The jury only assessed liability. It is up to US District Judge Dan Polster to decide how much the companies should owe to abate, or address, the public nuisance in Ohio’s Lake and Trumbull counties.

He has tentatively scheduled a trial on that question for May 9. The counties’ lawyers have said the costs are potentially $1 billion for each county.

The trial was the first that any pharmacies had faced over an epidemic that US health officials say had by 2019 resulted in nearly 500,000 opioid overdose deaths over the course of two decades.

A sign outside a park asks citizens to dispose of syringesThe overdose epidemic has taken almost half a million lives over the past 20 years.Getty Images

Over 100,000 people died from drug overdoses during the 12-month period ending April 2021, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday, a record high driven in large part by deaths from opioids like fentanyl.

At trial, lawyers for Lake and Trumbull counties argued that the pharmacies failed to ensure opioid prescriptions were valid and allowed excessive quantities of addictive pain pills to flood their communities.

The pharmacy operators, among the largest in the US, denied the allegations. They said they took steps to guard against the diversion of pills and blamed others, including doctors, regulators and drug traffickers, for the epidemic.

Two pharmacy employees look through a bin with medicine bottlesThe plaintiffs alleged that pharmacies played a role in drugs ultimately reaching the black market.Getty Images

The verdict in the Ohio trial followed recent setbacks for plaintiffs pursuing some of the other 3,300 opioid cases filed against drug manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies nationally.

Oklahoma’s top court on Nov. 9 overturned a $465 million judgment against drugmaker Johnson & Johnson, and a California judge this month ruled in favor of four drugmakers in a case brought by several large counties.

Other trials are underway in New York involving drugmakers Teva Pharmaceutical and AbbVie and in Washington state with the three largest US drug distributors. New York announced a $26 billion settlement with Johnson & Johnson in July.

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