US pharmacy chains responsible for their role in Ohio’s opioid crisis, jury finds out

In a ruling that could set the tone for US city and county governments wanting to hold pharmacies accountable for their roles in the opioid crisis, three retail pharmacy chains have distributed massive amounts of pain pills in two Ohio counties, a US federal jury said Tuesday.

The counties blamed the pharmacies operated by CVS, Walgreens and Walmart for not stopping the flow of pills that caused hundreds of overdose deaths and cost each of the counties about $1 billion, their attorneys said.

It was the first time that pharmaceutical companies completed an experiment to defend themselves in a drug crisis that has killed half a million Americans over the past two decades. The amount pharmacies must pay in compensation in the spring will be determined by a federal judge.

Lake and Trumbull counties were able to convince the jury that pharmacies played a large role in creating public nuisance in the way they distributed pain relievers in their communities.

Lawyers for the three drugstore chains confirmed that they have policies in place to stop the flow of pills when pharmacists have any concerns, and will notify authorities of suspicious orders from doctors.

2 more series have settled the lawsuits

They also said that doctors control how many pills are prescribed for legitimate medical needs.

Two other chains — Rite Aid and Giant Eagle — have settled lawsuits with Ohio counties.

The court heard nearly 80 million prescription pain relievers in Trumbull County, Ohio alone between 2012 and 2016 — the equivalent of 400 pills per resident. (Tony Dejak/The Associated Press)

Attorney Mark Lanier, who represented the counties in the lawsuit, said during the trial that the pharmacies were trying to blame everyone but themselves.

Lanier told jurors that the opioid crisis has overwhelmed the courts, social service agencies and law enforcement in Ohio’s blue-collar corner east of Cleveland, leaving behind heartbroken families and children born to addicted mothers.

Nearly 80 million prescription pain relievers were distributed in Trumbull County alone between 2012 and 2016 — the equivalent of 400 per resident.

In Lake County, about 61 million pills were distributed during that time.

Walgreens’ lawyer says manufacturers, not pharmacies, are to blame

The increase in doctors’ prescribing of pain medications such as oxycodone and hydrocodone came at a time when medical groups were beginning to recognize patients’ right to be treated for pain, Walgreens attorney Caspar Stollmayer said at the opening of the trial.

The problem, he said, was that “pharmaceutical companies deceived doctors into writing too many pills.”

The counties said pharmacies should be the last line of defense to prevent pills from getting into the wrong hands.

Lanier said they did not hire or train enough pharmacists and technicians to prevent this from happening and failed to implement systems that could report suspicious requests.

The trial before US District Judge Dan Polster in Cleveland was part of a broader set of federal opioid-related lawsuits — about 3,000 in all — that have been consolidated under the judge’s oversight. Other cases are moving forward in state courts.

It was one of five trials so far this year in the United States to test claims made by governments against parts of the pharmaceutical industry over prescription pain reliever losses.

Trials are now underway against drugmakers in New York and distribution companies in Washington state. The trial of lawsuits against distribution companies in West Virginia is over, but the judge has yet to issue a ruling.

Earlier in November, a California judge ruled in favor of major drug makers in a lawsuit with three counties and the city of Oakland. The judge said governments had not demonstrated that drug companies used deceptive marketing to increase unnecessary opioid prescriptions and create public inconvenience.

Also in November, the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned a 2019 ruling of $465 million in a state suit against drugmaker Johnson & Johnson.

Other lawsuits have resulted in significant settlements or proposed settlements before the trials are completed.

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