Three major US pharmacy chains did not do enough to stem excessive amounts of highly addictive opioid pills flooding into two Ohio counties, a jury in a landmark trial found on Tuesday.
CVS, Walgreens and Walmart created a public nuisance by allowing 140 million prescription painkillers to be distributed in just two counties from their pharmacies, the jury ruled, in a verdict that is likely to have implications for thousands of similar lawsuits against pharmacies and opioid distributors nationwide.
It was the first time the major pharmacies had completed a trial in which they were accused of fuelling an epidemic that has cost the lives of more than 500,000 Americans.
Attorney Mark Lanier, who represented Lake and Trumbull counties in the lawsuit, argued that the companies had a responsibility to prevent pills from ending up in the wrong hands. He called it “the most seminal case in pharmacy history.”
“A pharmacy is not a gum ball machine,” he said in closing arguments. “They have more responsibility than simply taking your money and getting you your pills.”
“The jury sounded a bell that should be heard through all pharmacies in America,” Mr Lanier said after the verdict.
It is now up to US District Judge Dan Polster to decide how much the companies will be liable to pay in damages.
The case is one of thousands brought around the country by local and state governments against companies that played a role in the manufacture and distribution of opioid pills. The county and the city of Huntingdon in West Virginia, once considered ground zero of the opioid crisis, are currently awaiting a verdict in a lawsuit against the “Big Three” opioid distributors – Cardinal Health, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen.
The court heard that some 80 million prescription painkillers were handed out in Trumbull County between 2012 and 2016, amounting to 400 for each resident. A further 61 million pills were distributed in Lake County during that same period. The crisis caused hundreds of deaths as overdoses skyrocketed, and cost the two counties $1bn.
The jury found in favour of the two counties, which argued that the pharmacies caused a public nuisance by not stemming the flow of such large numbers of pills.
The verdict comes just days after the Centers for Disease Control announced a record number of deaths from drug overdoses in the previous 12 months for which figures were available. Provisional data found 100,000 people died between May 2020 and April 2021, a rise of nearly 30 per cent on the year before, driven primarily by a rise in deaths associated with synthetic opioid fentanyl.
The pharmacies had argued during the trial that they had comprehensive measures in place to prevent suspicious orders from being delivered, and said it was up to doctors — not pharmacies — to decide who was in need of the medication.
Kaspar Stoffelmayr, an attorney for Walgreens, said at the opening of the trial that the reason the crisis spiralled out of control was that “pharmaceutical manufacturers tricked doctors into writing way too many pills.”
CVS spokesperson Mike DeAngelis said in a statement: “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.”
Walgreen spokesperson Fraser Engerman said: “As we have said throughout this process, we never manufactured or marketed opioids nor did we distribute them to the ‘pill mills’ and internet pharmacies that fueled this crisis.
“The plaintiffs’ attempt to resolve the opioid crisis with an unprecedented expansion of public nuisance law is misguided and unsustainable,” he added.
Walmart said in a statement that the trial was “engineered to favor the plaintiffs’ attorneys and was riddled with remarkable legal and factual mistakes.”
“Plaintiffs’ attorneys sued Walmart 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,” the statement added.