Jury finds that certain major retail chains fueled opioid crisis in two Ohio counties

Bottle of pills against a blue background.

On Tuesday, Nov. 23, a federal jury found that CVS Health, Walmart and Walgreens were liable for perpetuating the opioid crisis in Lake and Trumbull Counties, two counties in northeastern Ohio. This marks the first time pharmaceutical retail chains have been held responsible for their role in the opioid crisis, according to The New York Times.

Lawyers representing the counties asserted that for years, pharmacies had discounted numerous concerns about dubious opioid orders occurring concurrently at local pharmacies where customers received their prescriptions and at corporate’s base of operations where oversight provisions came “too little, too late,” according to the counties’ principal trial attorney Mark Lanier. 

The lawyers representing the two counties, in collaboration with attorneys representing local governments across the country, released a statement in the aftermath of Tuesday’s verdict: “The judgement today against Walmart, Walgreens and CVS represents the overdue reckoning for their complicity in creating a public nuisance.” 

CVS, Walgreens and Walmart announced they would appeal the recent ruling. 

“Pharmacists fill legal prescriptions written by DEA-licensed doctors who prescribe legal, FDA-approved substances to treat actual patients in need,'' as per a statement prepared by CVS.

The statement further elucidates, “We look forward to the appeals court review of this case, including the misapplication of public nuisance law.''

Mark Lanier, while presenting his closing argument at the U.S. District Court in Cleveland, remarked that pharmaceutical chains were “making money off every pill they sell.”

Mr. Lanier elaborated, ''They don't make money off a refusal to fill.''

However, licensed pharmacists, Lanier explained, are watchmen who have an obligation to doubt dubious prescriptions.

Lanier emphasized to jurors that the corporate headquarters of the pharmaceutical chains named in the suit had ought to have been more attentive as long ago as 2012, when the Drug Enforcement Administration began pursuing investigations into Florida pharmacies for selling opioids that arrived in states where it was not originally prescribed.

In order for something to fall under the public nuisance law, an emergency must persist. However, in the last few years, the number of opioid prescriptions has declined due to increased surveillance from state and federal oversight programs, amended regulations for doctors, and corporate amenability.

The counties flourishingly contended that once the supply of opioids declined, patients that acquired a dependency to prescription opioids resorted to using heroin and fentanyl. Patients turning to the use of illicit narcotics is directly attributed to the excessive flow of opioids that were made commercially available, the lawyers noted.

The jury ultimately decided that a public nuisance was applicable to the opioid crisis that was continuing to unfold in the two counties.

Refuting the arguments posed by the counties’ lawyers, the pharmaceutical attorneys claimed that their establishments only accounted for a minimal fraction of the total number of hospitals, pharmacies and clinics that distribute opioids in those two counties, and that the quantity of opioids that they sold was abundantly low.

There were innumerable reasons that prescription opioids flooded the counties that sole blame cannot be placed upon pharmacies, the pharmaceutical lawyers maintained. They directed attention to family medicine cabinets as the source of untouched pills that would eventually become illegally diverted; manufacturers that lobbied doctors and excessively extolled the benefits of the drug while omitting its risks; and doctors who were constantly goaded into treating pain more assertively, thus leading them to frequently order greater and more powerful quantities of the drug.

''We all know that it's the prescribers who control demand, pharmacists don't create demand,'' Brian Swanson, an attorney representing Walgreens, posited.

The lawyers representing these pharmaceutical chains repeatedly urged that federal authorities were truly the ones at fault. The defendants’ lawyers advanced that not only did the Food and Drug Administration approve the drug’s entrance into the commercial market, but that the DEA also set the annual quota on the quantity of opioids that could be generated in the country.

John Majoras, a lawyer representing Walmart, referenced the bridges over the Cuyahoga River that can be viewed from the courthouse in his closing argument. Majoras commented that the plaintiffs had not sufficiently constructed a bridge that linked all the compulsory components to demonstrate that the pharmacies had orchestrated a public nuisance.

Mark Lanier conceded that there were many variables that fueled the crisis. He held that pharmacies were unable to avert responsibility for their actions because they claimed to only distribute small quantities of the potent narcotic into the counties. Lanier also disputed the defense’s mechanism of calculation. 

This civil suit is far from over, as evidenced by a statement released by Walgreens. ''We believe 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,'' the statement publicized by Walgreens proclaimed.

Following hearings in the spring, the judge will establish the dollar amount the national pharmaceutical companies will pay to the two counties.

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