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Ohio jury finds pharmaceutical chains responsible in precedent-setting opioid suit

By Evan Simko-Bednarski, CNN

A jury in Ohio ruled Tuesday that three major pharmaceutical chains bore responsibility for the opioid epidemic in two Ohio counties.

The civil case, brought in federal court against CVS, Walmart and Walgreens, marks the first time pharmacies have been found responsible in the nationwide epidemic.

“It is a precedent setting case,” Mark Lanier, the lead trial attorney for Lake and Trumbull Counties, told CNN Tuesday.

Damages are set to be adjudicated in the spring. Lanier said that each county would be seeking over $1 billion in damages. Together, the counties represent some 440,000 Ohioans, according to court documents.

The suit, which was initially filed in 2018, was part of the federal multi-district litigation created that year to address the manifold claims against opioid manufacturers and distributors.

The counties alleged that the pharmacies “abused their position of special trust and responsibility” as registered dispensers of controlled drugs, and in so doing “fostered a black market for prescription opioids.”

“Prescription opioid pill mills and rogue prescribers cannot channel opioids for illicit use without at least the tacit support and willful blindness of the Defendants, if not their knowing support,” the complaint read.

In statements to CNN on Tuesday, all three pharmaceutical chains indicated that they would appeal the verdict.

“We are disappointed with the outcome of this trial. The facts and the law do not support the verdict. We believe the trial court committed significant legal errors in allowing the case to go before a jury on a flawed legal theory that is inconsistent with Ohio law,” Fraser Engerman, a Walgreens spokesperson, told CNN.

“As we have said throughout this process, we never manufactured or marketed opioids nor did we distribute them to the ‘pill mills’ and internet pharmacies that fueled this crisis,” Engerman added.

In a statement, Walmart criticized the trial as “riddled with remarkable legal and factual mistakes.”

“Plaintiffs’ attorneys sued Walmart in search of deep pockets while ignoring the real causes of the opioid crisis—such as pill mill doctors, illegal drugs, and regulators asleep at the switch—and they wrongly claimed pharmacists must second-guess doctors in a way the law never intended and many federal and state health regulators say interferes with the doctor-patient relationship,” Walmart’s statement read, in part. “As a pharmacy industry leader in the fight against the opioid crisis, Walmart is proud of our pharmacists, who are dedicated to helping patients in the face of a tangled web of conflicting federal and state opioid guidelines.”

CVS similarly defended its pharmacists in a statement.

“We strongly disagree with the decision,” CVS spokesperson Mike DeAngelis said. “Pharmacists fill legal prescriptions written by DEA-licensed doctors who prescribe legal, FDA-approved substances to treat actual patients in need.”

“We’re proud of the substantial work we’ve done to support our pharmacists in detecting illegitimate prescribing,” he continued. “But the simple facts are that opioid prescriptions are written by doctors, not pharmacists; opioid medications are made and marketed by manufacturers, not pharmacists; and our health care system depends on pharmacists to fill legitimate prescriptions that doctors deem necessary for their patients.”

Counties react

The verdict was happy news to officials in Lake and Trumbull counties, where damages are expected to fund opioid abatement measures.

“Today’s verdict means a lot to Lake County, because it is a substantive step forward to real healing in this epidemic,” Lake County Commissioner John Plecnik told CNN. “On behalf of all Lake County families, we thank the jury for sending a powerful message to rebuke those responsible for overselling opioids.”

“This verdict will also mean greater resources to combat opioid addiction, which are desperately needed,” Plecnik said. “I can’t say this strongly enough, no one is immune to the impact of addiction and opioid abuse, and this is not just a victory for Lake and Trumbull, it is a victory for all Americans.”

“Truly, in Lake County, we have not had a corner of the county that has not been impacted by this epidemic,” Kim Frasier, head of Lake County’s department of Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services, said in a Tuesday afternoon press conference. “This verdict gives voice to those individuals and those families who have been so traumatized.”

April Caraway, head of Trumbull County’s Mental Health and Recovery Board, echoed the sentiment.

“We appreciate some vindication,” she said. “This was difficult, but we wanted to do it for the people who’ve lost people.”

Next steps

Lanier told CNN that attorneys for both sides are still scheduling the damages phase, where Judge Dan Polster will put a dollar figure to the damages suffered by Lake and Trumbull counties. In the meantime, an appeal is expected in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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