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Ohio Jury Faults Pharmacies for Spurring Opioid Epidemic

November 24, 2021 by Tom Ramstack

CLEVELAND, Ohio — A landmark jury verdict Tuesday could make major pharmacy chains like CVS, Walgreens and Walmart liable for encouraging the opioid epidemic that kills thousands of Americans each year. 

The verdict in federal court in Ohio is the first to uphold a legal theory underpinning about 3,000 lawsuits nationwide.

Unlike other recent judgments in Oklahoma and California state courts, the U.S. District Court in Cleveland found that the pharmacies created a “public nuisance” by selling a dangerous drug despite its known risks of addiction, overdose and death.

If the decision survives on appeal, it would vastly increase the liability for opioid complications, according to attorneys who handled the case.

The pharmacies “engaged in intentional and/or illegal conduct [that] was a substantial factor in producing the public nuisance,” according to the verdict form. 

A separate court proceeding is scheduled for the spring to determine the penalty for the pharmacies. The plaintiffs are suggesting more than $1 billion for addiction treatment of residents in the two Ohio counties that sued.

“Today’s verdict represents a milestone victory for the Lake County and Trumbull County communities, and the entire country, in the fight against the opioid epidemic,” lawyers for the plaintiffs said in a joint statement.

Lake and Trumbull county officials blamed the pharmacies for making opioids available to consumers in amounts that far exceeded their medical needs. The pharmacies’ business practices “produced a permanent or long-lasting effect upon the public right,” their Aug. 19, 2021 court filing says. 

The trial was the first to hold pharmacies responsible for the opioid epidemic and the first that represented a victory for a local government. Other lawsuits have named opioid distributors and manufacturers as defendants.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned a $465 million judgment this month against pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson. In California this month, a judge dismissed a lawsuit against drug manufacturers that make opioids.

All three of the pharmacies said they would appeal. They argued during the trial that they complied with all laws and Food and Drug Administration regulations.

If anyone other than the patients were to be blamed, it was the doctors, they said.

“Prescribers, they have the greatest control over the spigot,” said Brian Swanson, attorney for Walgreens, during closing arguments.

A Walgreens statement said “the trial court committed significant legal errors in allowing the case to go before a jury on a flawed legal theory that is inconsistent with Ohio law.”

A Walmart statement said the trial “was engineered to favor the plaintiffs’ attorneys and was riddled with remarkable legal and factual mistakes.”

CVS officials said they “look forward to the appeals court review of this case, including the misapplication of public nuisance law.”

Tom can be reached at [email protected].

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