Walmart, CVS, Walgreens helped fuel US opioid crisis, jury finds

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A jury in Cleveland, Ohio said the pharmacy failed to create a legally mandated surveillance system to detect illegitimate prescriptions.

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A Cleveland jury concluded that Walmart Inc., CVS Health Corp. and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. Failing to properly monitor opioid prescriptions helped create a public-health crisis, the drug industry’s latest loss in a growing lawsuit over painkillers.

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The federal-court panel supported claims from Northeast Ohio’s Trumbull and Lake counties that the pharmacy chain failed to create a legally mandated surveillance system to detect illegal opioid prescriptions. The counties are seeking billions of dollars in reimbursement for the costs of dealing with addictions and fatal overdoses. Similar lawsuits are pending against drug manufacturers and distributors. A judge will hear arguments about the counties’ compensation claims in May.

Walmart and other pharmacy operators argued that municipalities could not prove that they created a so-called “public nuisance” through negligent prescription monitoring when scripts were written by licensed doctors. He also touted his system designed to help pharmacists track patients’ visits, making it easier to spot red flags between prescriptions.

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This is the first jury decision in a four-year opioid litigation. Municipalities across the country have accused opioid manufacturers, distributors and sellers of downplaying the addiction risks of painkillers and sacrificing patient safety for billions of profits. Juries in Cleveland deliberated for more than five days before returning a unanimous verdict on Tuesday.

‘rings a bell’

“The jury’s verdict is like a bell that should be heard by pharmacy companies across the country,” Mark Lanier, the Ohio counties’ lead attorney, said after the verdict was pronounced. “Laws related to the proper monitoring of prescription drugs are taken seriously and are not ignored or disregarded.”

All the companies said they would appeal against the decision. “We look forward to a Court of Appeals review of this matter, including its misuse of the public nuisance law,” CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis said in an emailed statement. “Facts and laws do not support the verdict,” said Walgreen’s Fraser Engelman.

Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said in an emailed statement, “We will appeal this erroneous decision, which is a reflection of a lawsuit that was designed in favor of plaintiffs’ attorneys and was riddled with notable legal and factual inaccuracies.”

Ohio is one of the states devastated by the opioid crisis, which has killed nearly 500,000 Americans over two decades. Trumbull and Lake Counties allege they were filled with 140 million bullets over a six-year period beginning in 2006.

Recent industry victories

The Cleveland decision follows a recent victory in opioid cases for the pharmaceutical industry. Earlier this month a judge in California dismissed claims from four municipalities that Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. and other opioid makers caused a public nuisance by flooding the state with pain relievers.

Earlier this month, the Oklahoma Supreme Court awarded $465 million to the state by the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office for allegedly misleading opioid marketing campaigns. City and county officials in West Virginia McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. And Amerisource awaits a federal judge’s decision in the public nuisance case against Bergen.

The Cleveland case was the first jury trial to emerge from more than 4,000 opioid suits consolidated before U.S. District Judge Dan Pollster, which has encouraged a national resolution for all claims. While some local deals have been made to avoid tests, pollster has in the past criticized pharmacy providers for failing to reach a comprehensive agreement.

The drug industry is at risk of nearly $50 billion from state and local government suits over the pain reliever, Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Holly Fromm said Tuesday after the opioid lawsuit. Overall, pharmacies would have to pay “about $10 billion or less,” she said in an interview.

Companies turned a blind eye to questionable opioid prescriptions to drive home arguments, Lanier used props such as baking sifters and a bridge made of Legos to persuade the panel to hold pharmacy operators responsible for their opioid miscalculations. .

“These three pharmacies will not admit that they have done anything wrong,” he said in the closing arguments. “None of these pharmacies are charities. They are all for-profit organizations. They make money from every pill they sell,” he said. “And if they don’t want to do the job of selling these pills properly, they have to should be held accountable.”

The consolidated case before Pollster is at Ray National Prescription Opioid Litigation, 17-MD-2804, US District Court, Northern District of Ohio (Cleveland).

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