3 giant drug store chains hit with $650-million judgment for opioid harms

cvsapp-150x150CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart are getting expensive lessons about corporate responsibility in filling prescriptions, as federal courts in San Francisco and Cleveland separately have faulted the companies for inundating communities with staggering quantities of addictive painkillers.

Those drugs caused such great harm that the three major drug chains must pay two Ohio Counties $650.5 million, a judge has decided.

The county governments told U.S. Judge Dan A. Polster — before whom has been consolidated thousands of lawsuits from states, counties, cities, other local governments, and Indian tribes — that they estimate they and their residents have suffered $3 billion in damages due to the opioid abuse and drug overdose crisis.  A November jury verdict in favor of the two Ohio counties already faulted the pharmacy chains for continuing “to dispense mass quantities of prescription painkillers over the years while ignoring flagrant signs that the pills were being abused,” the New York Times reported.

Polster presided over proceedings to determine the financial responsibility the companies should bear for their role in creating the opioid nightmare in Lake and Trumbull counties, outside Cleveland. There, the Washington Post reported this:

“Federal law requires pharmacies to determine that prescriptions have been issued for legitimate medical purposes before filling them. The counties’ attorneys argued that the retailers oversupplied the blue-collar counties in Ohio with more pills than could have possibly been medically necessary. Between 2012 and 2016, pharmacies dispensed 61 million pills in Lake County, enough to supply every man, woman, and child with 265 pills, lawyers have estimated.”

In the San Francisco case, in which only Walgreens is a defendant and money damages have yet to be determined, the Bloomberg news service reported this:

“From 2006 to 2014, San Francisco County saw 163,645,704 opioids distributed, enough for 22 pills per person per year, the city attorney’s office said. Between 2015 and 2020, the city saw a 478% increase in opioid-related overdose deaths, and in a typical day at the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital Emergency Department, one quarter of visits are opioid-related.”

In the Ohio case, the judge told the companies they must pay the hundreds of millions to the two counties that sued and beat them over 15 years, and the New York Times reported:

“[He] ordered the companies to comply with a strict series of monitoring and reporting rules within 90 days to ensure that they improve how they dispense opioids and spot potential problems. Those requirements include putting in place hotlines for anonymous tips and policies for internal compliance committees. Judge Polster noted that both CVS and Walgreens had already agreed to such restrictions in a May settlement of opioid claims with the state of Florida. Although such practices should already exist in accordance with federal regulations, this order gives additional oversight to an outside administrator.”

Polster scolded the drug chains for their defense, in which they argued that they did not create a public nuisance and that pharmacists filled prescriptions written by credentialed doctors — whose scripts, the companies said, are not typically questioned. The judges in Cleveland and San Francisco (in the Walgreens case) disagreed, saying that pharmacists should not have blindly dispensed such staggering quantities of pills without flagging the orders to law enforcement and federal regulators — before communities suffered debilitating addictions and deaths.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that the opioid crisis killed more than 500,000 Americans over a decade, and Bloomberg reported this of the economic damage it caused:

“Nationwide, the Pew Charitable Trusts said, opioid overdose, misuse, and dependence account for $35 billion in health care costs, $14.8 billion in criminal justice costs, and $92 billion in lost productivity.”

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them and their loved ones by dangerous drugs, especially prescribed products like addictive painkillers from Big Pharma.

The opioid crisis — fostered for years by Big Pharma, doctors, nurses, hospitals, insurers, and others in the U.S. health care system — has entered its latest and notably bad stage with easily and cheaply made, exceedingly powerful synthetic painkillers like fentanyl flooding the country. The crisis has been blamed for more than 108,000 American deaths last year due to drug overdoses, most of them opioids or synthetic versions of them or illegal, hard narcotics, experts have reported, based on still finalizing data. Those were record-shattering numbers.

The civil justice system has proved to be one of the more potent ways for individuals, families, cities, counties, states, Indian tribes, and others to seek financial redress and a modicum of justice for those who inundated the country with billions more prescription pills than patients could ever consume, fueling the nightmare we’re now experiencing.

Lawsuits have not only started to deliver financial compensation that desperate victims, their loved ones, and communities can use to help those with addiction as well as to cover the whopping public costs of dealing with the opioid crisis, they also have helped to expose the nefarious conduct, especially by Big Pharma, in creating this steadily worsening mess.

Indeed, in the Cleveland case, the judge’s ruling underscored an important point, the New York Times reported:

“Judge Polster’s ruling … implicitly stands as a warning to … companies in other pending cases. Of the three groups of defendants [including manufacturers, distributors, and drug store chains], the pharmacy chains have been the most reluctant to settle cases. Earlier this month, for example, the nation’s big three distributors settled with more than a hundred West Virginia counties and cities for $400 million for their business practices during the opioid epidemic. Loosely comparing that settlement to Judge Polster’s ruling, [Mark Lanier, a Texas lawyer that led the plaintiffs’ trial team] said the takeaway was that ‘it’s a heck of a lot cheaper to settle than it is to lose at trial.’ Referring to the pharmacies, he added, ‘I mean, they could have settled this for a heck of a lot less than they’re doing now.’”

The newspaper also quoted an outside legal expert, thusly:

“Adam Zimmerman, who teaches complex litigation at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles and who has closely followed the national opioid litigation, said: ‘Just imagine the costs for the other 3,000 similar plaintiffs in this litigation, or the nearly 20,000 incorporated cities around the country. With those kinds of numbers, it’s no wonder so many defendants have chosen to settle out of court.’”

We have much work to do to quell the opioid crisis and to ensure that millions of people and their elected governments find justice and the practical and economic support they will need for a long time due to the awful damage done by harmful drugs.

Patrick Malone & Associates, P.C. listed in Best Lawyers Rated by Super Lawyers Patrick A. Malone
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