Drugstore chains defend their actions as landmark US opioid trial nears end

The combined photo shows a CVS logo in Manhattan, New York, USA on August 1, 2016, reusable Walmart bags in a newly opened Walmart neighborhood market in Chicago on September 21, 2011, and a Walgreens sign in the suburb of Niles in Chicago, Illinois, Feb. 10, 2015. REUTERS / Andrew Kelly / Jim Young / File Photo

CLEVELAND, Nov. 15 (Reuters) – Lawyers for drugstore chains, including CVS and Walgreens, argued on Monday that they were not to blame for the opioid epidemic in the United States, as jurors stood were preparing to wonder if they should hold them responsible for the devastation caused by the drug crisis in two Ohio’s. counties.

Mark Lanier, an attorney for Lake and Trumbull counties, told a federal jury in Cleveland that a verdict in the case against CVS Health Corp (CVS.N), Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc (WBA.O) and Walmart Inc (WMT.N) would have ramifications across the country.

The trial is the first that drugstore chains have faced in thousands of lawsuits by states and local governments seeking to hold them accountable for an outbreak that U.S. health officials say has resulted in nearly 500,000 opioid overdose deaths in two decades.

“You decide what will be the most significant case in pharmacy history,” Lanier said in his oral argument.

He argued that the companies have created a public nuisance in the form of an epidemic by failing to prevent excessive amounts of addictive pain relievers from flooding counties or by preventing the filling of bogus prescriptions.

“A drugstore is not a gumball machine,” Lanier said. “They have more responsibility than just taking your money and getting your pills.”

Defense attorneys countered that the companies had taken steps to guard against pill diversion and blamed others for the deadly outbreak.

“There are many, many players who have played a role in the opioid crisis: manufacturers, government agencies, doctors, drug cartels,” said CVS lawyer Eric Delinsky.

Brian Swanson, an attorney for Walgreens, said he has had policies in place since 1997 to identify “red flags” of abuse and continue to improve them.

“A company that constantly updates and improves its policies is not a company that acts intentionally to cause an opioid crisis,” he told jurors.


If jurors found pharmacies creating a public nuisance, U.S. District Judge Dan Polster would decide how much they owe to reduce or remedy it. County attorneys said the costs were potentially $ 1 billion for each county.

The Ohio lawsuit follows recent setbacks by plaintiffs pursuing some of the 3,300 opioid cases filed against drugmakers, distributors and pharmacies.

Oklahoma’s highest court last Tuesday overturned a $ 465 million judgment against drugmaker Johnson & Johnson, and a California judge this month ruled in favor of four drugmakers in a case brought by several large counties.

These lawsuits also accused the companies of creating a public nuisance. A similar lawsuit brought by Washington State against three drug distributors was tried on Monday. Read more

Reporting by Grant Segall in Cleveland and Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Will Dunham, Noeleen Walder, Aurora Ellis and Dan Grebler

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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