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CVS, Walgreens and Walmart fueled opioid crisis, jury finds

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CVS, Walgreens and Walmart fueled opioid crisis, jury finds

A federal jury in Cleveland found Tuesday that the nation’s three largest pharmacy chains — CVS Health, Walmart and Walgreens — had contributed significantly to the crisis of opioid overdoses and deaths in two Ohio counties, the retail segment of the drug industry for the first time in decades. has been held accountable in the ongoing pandemic.

After a hearing in the spring, the trial judge will determine how much each company must pay to the county.

The verdict – the first from a jury in an opioid case – was encouraging plaintiffs in thousands of lawsuits nationwide because they are all relying on the same legal tactic: that drug companies contributed to “public nuisance,” a claim. that plaintiffs oppose cover the public health crisis created by opioids.

The public nuisance argument was rejected twice this month, by judges in California and Oklahoma in state cases against opioid makers. The judges found that in accordance with the specifics of their own states’ public nuisance laws, the companies’ activities were precipitated by overdoses and deaths and that the laws were applied too broadly.

In this case, brought by Lake and Trumbull counties in northeastern Ohio, plaintiffs’ attorneys successfully used a legal claim. He argued that over the years, pharmacies had turned a blind eye to countless red flags about suspected opioid orders, both at the local counters where patients received the drugs and at corporate headquarters, where surveillance was needed, according to Mark Lanier, The county’s lead trial attorney, “too little, too late.”

After a six-week trial, a 12-member jury deliberated for five and a half days.

“This is the first opioid trial against these major household names,” said Adam Zimmerman, who teaches mass litigation at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “They have been the least interested group of defendants, so this ruling is at least a small indication to them that these cases will not necessarily play well before a jury.” He said this may prompt some pharmacy defendants to consider settling instead of going to trial.

But Mr. Zimmerman also noted that opioid lawsuits, which have spread across the country and are about to go to trial in several state and federal courts, still have a long way to go.

“It feels like there are several different ballgames going on at once, each with slightly different rules, and we are almost all in the early innings,” he said, as each state has its own public nuisance law, The three recent results may have little legal impact on upcoming cases.

But even with the thousands of opioid cases, the first of which were filed in 2014, with Wood, the urgency of getting help to opioid-shattered communities hasn’t slowed. New federal data released last week shows opioid overdose deaths have reached record levels during the pandemic, fueled by deaths from illicit opioids such as heroin and street fentanyl.

Retailers with deep pockets were the last group of drug corporations to be pursued in the courts. To date, they have faced fewer lawsuits than other pharmaceutical companies.

Last summer, Walgreens, Rite Aid, CVS and Walmart entered into settlements with two New York counties, Nassau and Suffolk, for a combined $26 million. In the Ohio case, Rite Aid and Giant Eagle, a regional chain, were settled for a previously undisclosed sum.

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In contrast, some opioid manufacturers and distributors have committed billions of dollars in settlement proposals, some nationwide.

“Today’s ruling against Walmart, Walgreens and CVS represents an overdue calculation for their involvement in causing public nuisance,” attorneys for both countries, along with lawyers for local governments across the country, said in a statement after the verdict Tuesday afternoon. ” ,

CVS, Walgreens and Walmart said they would appeal the decision. “Pharmacists fill legal prescriptions written by DEA-licensed doctors, who prescribe legal, FDA-approved substances to treat actual patients,” CVS said in a statement.

The statement continued, “We look forward to the Court of Appeals’ review of this matter, including its misuse of the public nuisance law.”

In closing arguments at the trial in US District Court in Cleveland last week, Mr Lanier, the Texas trial attorney who represented the county, said the pharmacy chain was “making money off every pill they sold.”

“They don’t make money by refusing to fill up,” he said.

But licensed pharmacists, he said, are the gatekeepers whose duty it is to question questionable prescriptions.

Mr Lanier, who has built a career winning a stellar award from Big Pharma, told the jury that corporate entities should have been on notice since 2012, when the Drug Enforcement Administration began chasing Florida chain pharmacies for pumping. Opioids that landed as far away as Ohio.

The jury first had to decide whether the over-supply and subsequent illegal diversion of prescription pills caused a public nuisance in each county.

Under the public nuisance law, a crisis must continue. But in recent years, the number of opioid prescriptions has declined, primarily due to greater oversight from state and federal surveillance programs, revised guidelines for doctors, and corporate compliance.

Lawyers for the counties successfully argued that when supplies ran low, patients who were addicted to the pills had turned to heroin and illegal fentanyl. Lawyers said the result was a direct, direct descendant of the flood of prescription opioid pills.

After the jurors concluded that a public nuisance related to the opioid crisis existed in the counties, they moved on to another question. Did each pharmacy chain engage in “deliberate” or “illegal” conduct, contributing substantially to the public nuisance of the opioid crisis?

If so, then under the law, defendants would have to pay to “reduce” the “nuisance” they had increased.

Like jury decisions in criminal cases, the verdict in this civil case was to be unanimous. But the jury was only required to apply “overweight of evidence” (at least 51 percent) as the standard of evidence, the level of “beyond a reasonable doubt” required to render a guilty verdict in criminal trials. is less than.

Pharmacy attorneys responded with arguments that appeals courts may still find persuasive. His stores accounted for a small fraction of the total number of pharmacies, hospitals and clinics that distributed opioids in the two counties, he said, and the amount of pills he sold was similarly small.

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His lawyers argued that there were too many reasons opioid drugs exploded in counties to lay the blame so quickly on the pharmacies’ feet. He pointed to family medicine cabinets, a stockpile of so many unused pills, as troves for illegal diversions; For manufacturers who solicited doctors and oversaw the benefits of opioids and outweighed the risks; And for doctors, who urged to treat the pain more aggressively, increasingly ordered larger and more potent doses.

“We all know it’s the prescribers controlling the demand,” Walgreens attorney Brian Swanson said. “Pharmacists don’t create demand.”

Over and over again, defendants’ attorneys pointed the finger at federal officials. Not only were the drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration, he said, but the DEA also set an annual limit on how many opioids could be produced in the country.

In his closing argument, Walmart attorney John Majoras referred to bridges over the Cuyahoga River, which can be seen from the courtyard. He said that the plaintiff had not built a bridge connecting all the necessary elements to prove that the pharmacies had caused public nuisance.

Then Mr. Lanier stood up for his final remarks. He was waiting, he said, to talk about one such bridge. Then he built a model bridge made of hundreds of Lego.

There were many contributors to the crisis, he acknowledged. But pharmacies could not escape responsibility, Mr Lanier argued, claiming that they only put relatively small amounts of opioids into the counties (and they disputed the method of defense’s calculation).

He said the community depends on the strength of the steel trestle of the bridge.

But what if, he asked, two or three are rotten or in the wrong place because people are driving it? After that he got only a few runs out. “Everything can fall,” he said, as the model disintegrated in front of the jury.

Whether this decision survives the appeal remains to be seen. In addition to the many legal questions arising from the case, defendants are expected to continue to criticize Judge Dan Aaron Pollster, who presided over the trial and oversaw the aggregation of thousands of opioid lawsuits over the years.

Walgreens’ statement was equally predictable. “We believe that the trial court made significant legal errors in allowing the case to go before a jury on a legal principle inconsistent with Ohio law,” it said.

The dispute as to whether a wrongful trial should have been declared may be one of the arguments for appeal. One jury member showed his outside research to other jurors; The juror was dismissed, and the trial continued. And pharmacy retailers are likely to resurrect their long-standing complaint — they believe the judge pollsters appeared in favor of the plaintiffs. Since 2018, he has urged all parties to reach a settlement so that litigation does not prolong and so that communities ravaged by the opioid crisis can get dire relief.

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