Pharmacy chains face their first trial in U.S. opioid litigation

Four large pharmacy chains are set to face their first trial over the deadly U.S. opioid epidemic, creating new pressure to reach settlements with state and local governments who accuse them of contributing to the public health crisis.

The Ohio counties of Lake and Trumbull allege that oversight failures at pharmacies run by Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc, CVS Health Corp, Walmart Inc and Giant Eagle Inc led to excessive amounts of opioid pills in their communities.

Lawyers for the counties and companies are set to deliver opening statements on Monday to a federal jury in Cleveland, where thousands of similar lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies, drug distributors and pharmacies are pending.

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.

Big Pharmacy Chains Fed the Opioid Epidemic

New details emerge in a lawsuit asserting that chains including CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens sold millions of pills in small towns but rarely flagged suspicious orders to authorities.

Through years of lawsuits and rising public anger over the opioid epidemic, the big American pharmacy retailers have largely eluded scrutiny. But a new court filing Wednesday morning asserts that pharmacies including CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens and Giant Eagle as well as those operated by Walmart were as complicit in perpetuating the crisis as the manufacturers and distributors of the addictive drugs.

The retailers sold millions of pills in tiny communities, offered bonuses for high-volume pharmacists and even worked directly with drug manufacturers to promote opioids as safe and effective, according to the complaint filed in federal court in Cleveland by two Ohio counties.

Your Guide To The Massive (And Massively Complex) Opioid Litigation

Make no mistake: The legal fight over liability for the U.S. opioid crisis is only heating up.

An 11th-hour settlement Monday morning averted what would have been the first trial in a landmark federal case, one involving thousands of plaintiffs at nearly every level of government and defendants from every link in the chain of opioid drug production. But all the other lawsuits in the broader case remain on track for courtroom confrontations.

And with the costs of the crisis estimated at tens of billions of dollars and with more than 200,000 overdose deaths since the late 1990s, the stakes are immense — even for people who have never heard of this case. What happens with it will largely determine how much money cities and counties nationwide will have to fight the devastating effects of opioid abuse and when they’ll get it.

But the litigation is also intensely complicated. So let’s begin with the basics.

Preventing the Next Crisis: Six Critical Questions About the Opioid Epidemic

The opioid epidemic is one of those circumstances in which the crisis has required an immediate response by state and local governments to “pick up the pieces” through the provision of social services at a magnitude and cost that were unthinkable prior to 1995. The amount of money spent on first responders and medical treatments and the number of children left parentless because of the epidemic is enormous. 

Few individuals question whether state governments should be responding to the social needs of their constituents; however, less has been written about what has been relinquished—that is, the true opportunity costs—because of this response, along with the broader impact that this has on states and their citizenry. This is an important omission and one that needs to be discussed, not only to compensate states, but also to engage more constituents in understanding how those who are not directly affected by the epidemic lose out as a result.

The Opioid Litigation: Settlements, Winners, and Losers

As the fall approaches, anticipation is growing for a breakthrough in the National Prescription Opiate Litigation, the 1,800 combined cases before Judge Dan Polster. The cases accuse Purdue Pharma and other drug manufacturers, along with drug distributors like McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, and Cardinal Health and national pharmacies of responsibility for opioid-related harm.

With the first trial in this behemoth case just months away (October 2019), the expectation has been that the opioid litigation will follow the patterns of previous high-profile cases like Big Tobacco or the NFL Concussion cases, reaching a comprehensive settlement before trial. Though Judge Polster has kept the underlying facts out of public view by allowing the defendants to file materials under seal, the parties have made noteworthy efforts to publicize an anticipated settlement framework.

The proposal would pull nearly 25,000 cities and counties nationwide (of whom roughly fewer than 7% are currently parties to the litigation) into a negotiation class, betting that few would opt out based on litigation costs. The theory is that this would give the defendants some security by foreclosing the possibility of future suits by municipalities not yet participating in the proceedings. The differential share of opioid harms at different times and places around the country could be allocated with an interactive map establishing each local government’s expected share of any proposed settlement.

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