CVS, Walmart and Walgreens Helped Spread Opioid Crisis, Federal Jury Rules

A monetary amount will be decided after a hearing next Spring.

A federal jury in Cleveland has found that CVS Health, Walmart and Walgreens are partially responsible for promulgating the deadly opioid drug abuse crisis, which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths.

After hearing evidence in a lawsuit filed by Lake and Trumbull counties in Ohio, a verdict was returned on Tuesday, finding that the three pharmacy chains should be held liable for an explosion of opioid deaths in the communities.

While the lawsuit alleged the pharmacies contributed to more than $1 billion in damages and countless deaths, how much the pharmacies will have to pay will not be decided until after hearings which will be held next Spring.

Two other pharmacies, Rite Aid and Giant Eagle, were able to reach opioid settlement agreements with the counties before the trial.

The original lawsuit claimed the pharmacy chains did not do enough to stop or manage the flow of unsafe drugs and overprescribed painkillers through their retail chains. The lawsuit noted that in Trumbull County alone, about 80 million prescription painkillers were distributed from 2012 to 2016, which is the equivalent of 400 pills per resident.

Lake County saw similar distribution of opioids, with about 61 million pills doled out from the pharmacies during that same time.

In 2013, opioid overdoses accounted for 3,100 deaths, but that number has continued to rise sharply each year. Federal health officials now warn that opioids account for nearly 70% of all drug overdoses, and Americans are more likely to die from an opioid overdose than from a car crash.

A recent report revealed that 2020 had the highest number of U.S. drug overdose deaths in recorded history, largely driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The lawsuit was filed using public nuisance laws, which have had mixed results in previous cases.

Earlier this month, the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned a $465 million opioid verdict against Johnson & Johnson in that state, saying the public nuisance law was improperly applied. The ruling echoes a bench decision by a California judge earlier this month, who also rejected a public nuisance argument which was the basis of a lawsuit brought by several California communities against Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Allergan and Endo Pharmaceuticals.

However, this latest decision was the first to be put before a jury instead of a judge handing down a bench verdict, and could be seen as a predictor for how other juries, many from communities ravaged by opioids for years, are likely to respond to future trials.

There are currently more than 2,000 opioid lawsuits filed in the federal court system, each seeking damages from various manufacturers and distributors of the powerful narcotic medications over addiction and abuse problems that have plagued the nation in the recent years.

Given common questions of fact and law raised in the claims, the U.S. JPML established centralized proceedings for the opioid cases last year, consolidating the claims before U.S. District Judge Dan A. Polster in the Northern District of Ohio, for coordinated discovery and pretrial proceedings.

Some drug companies have already decided to settle claims filed by many states and communities.  In July, Johnson & Johnson, McKesson, Cardinal Health and Amerisource Bergin agreed to a $26 billion settlement with 4,000 state and local governments over nearly identical charges.

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