Pharmacy Chains Go on Trial in 1st Case Over US Opioid Epidemic

By Reuters
October 5, 2021 Updated: October 5, 2021

CLEVELAND—A lawyer for two Ohio counties told a federal jury on Monday at the start of a closely watched opioid trial that oversight failures by four large pharmacy operators including CVS Health Corp and Walmart Inc. helped fuel the deadly U.S. health crisis.

Mark Lanier told a federal jury in Cleveland hearing on the first trial the pharmacy chains have faced in nationwide litigation over the epidemic, that the companies bore responsibility for drug abuse in the counties of Lake and Trumbull.

The other defendant pharmacy chains are run by Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. and Giant Eagle Inc.

The counties contend they failed to ensure prescriptions were valid, causing an oversupply of pills, overdoses, and deaths.

“They’re known as the last line of defense,” Lanier said in his opening statement. “These are the people who are putting the pills on the streets. They have to provide effective controls.”

Opening statements are expected to continue on Monday and into Tuesday. The companies deny wrongdoing, saying criminals were more likely to obtain opioids illegally from other sources, including pill mills, crooked doctors, and drug traffickers.

More than 3,300 cases have been brought largely by state and local governments seeking to hold the companies responsible for an opioid abuse epidemic that U.S. government data shows led to nearly 500,000 overdose deaths from 1999 to 2019.

The pharmacy operators have never faced trial before in the litigation.

Should jurors find the companies created a public nuisance, U.S. District Judge Dan Polster will determine how much they must pay to abate, or address, the health crisis in the communities. He has urged the parties to settle.

The trial comes after the three largest U.S. distributors that supply pharmacies—McKesson Corp, Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Corp—and the drugmaker Johnson & Johnson in July proposed paying up to $26 billion to settle cases against them.

A bankruptcy judge in August approved a settlement by OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP and its wealthy Sackler family owners that the company values at more than $10 billion.

By Grant Segall