CLEVELAND (AP) – Three retail drugstore chains recklessly distributed massive amounts of pain relievers in two Ohio counties, a federal jury said on Tuesday in a verdict that could set the tone for U.S. city and county governments who want to hold pharmacies accountable for their roles in the opioid crisis.
The counties have accused pharmacies operated by CVS, Walgreens and Walmart of failing to stop the flood of pills that have caused hundreds of overdose deaths and cost each of the two counties an estimated $ 1 billion, their lawyer said.
It was the first time drug companies have completed a lawsuit to defend themselves in a drug crisis that has killed half a million Americans in the past two decades. The amount of damages that pharmacies must pay will be decided in the spring by the federal judge.
Lake and Trumbull counties were able to convince the jury that pharmacies played a disproportionate role in creating a public nuisance in the way they dispense pain relievers in their communities.
Lawyers for the three drugstore chains maintained they had policies to stem the flow of pills when their pharmacists had concerns and would notify authorities of suspicious orders from doctors.
They also said that it was the doctors who controlled the number of pills prescribed for legitimate medical needs.
Two other chains – Rite Aid and Giant Eagle – have already settled lawsuits with the two Ohio counties.
Lawyer Mark Lanier, who represented the counties in the lawsuit, said during the lawsuit that pharmacies were trying to blame everyone but themselves.
The opioid crisis has engulfed courts, social service agencies and law enforcement in the Ohio blue collar corner east of Cleveland, leaving behind heartbroken families and babies born of drug-addicted mothers, Lanier told jurors.
About 80 million prescription pain relievers were dispensed in Trumbull County alone between 2012 and 2016, or the equivalent of 400 for every resident.
In Lake County, some 61 million tablets were distributed during this period.
The increase in the number of doctors prescribing pain relievers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone came at a time when medical groups began to recognize that patients have a right to be treated for pain, Kaspar Stoffelmayr said. , attorney for Walgreens, at the start of the trial.
The problem, he said, was that “the drug makers tricked doctors into writing way too many pills.”
Counties have said pharmacies should be the last line of defense in preventing pills from falling into the wrong hands.
They haven’t hired or trained enough pharmacists and technicians to prevent this from happening and haven’t put in place systems that can flag suspicious orders, Lanier said.
The trial before U.S. District Judge Dan Polster in Cleveland was part of a larger constellation of federal opioid lawsuits – about 3,000 in total – that have been consolidated under the judge’s oversight. Other cases move forward in state courts.
It was one of five trials so far this year in the United States to test claims by governments against parts of the pharmaceutical industry over the record of prescription pain relievers.
Lawsuits against drugmakers in New York and distribution companies in Washington state are ongoing. A lawsuit over claims against distribution companies in West Virginia is over, but the judge has yet to render a verdict.
Earlier in November, a California judge ruled in favor of the major drugmakers in a lawsuit with three counties and the city of Oakland. The judge said governments had failed to prove drug companies were using deceptive marketing to increase unnecessary opioid prescriptions and create a public nuisance.
Also in November, the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned a 2019 judgment for $ 465 million in a state lawsuit against drugmaker Johnson & Johnson.
Other lawsuits resulted in big settlements or proposed settlements before the trials ended.
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