Pharmacy chains set to pay $878 million for epidemic role of opioids, Ohio counties say

CLEVELAND, May 10 (Reuters) – A lawyer for two counties in Ohio said on Monday that CVS Health Corp (CVS.N), Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc (WBA.O) and Walmart Inc (WMT.N) should fund a $878 million plan. to tackle the opioid crisis there, as a first-of-its-kind trial was launched to determine the contribution of drugstore chains.

A federal jury ruled in November that the companies created a public nuisance by flooding Ohio’s Lake and Trumbull counties with addictive prescription painkillers that ended up on the black market, in the first trial at which drug chains pharmacies have faced during the crisis. Read more

Now the counties want the companies to fund an $878 million, five-year plan that Mark Lanier, a lawyer representing the counties, said Monday was aimed at solving the opioid crisis rather than assigning blame.

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Lanier’s remarks came at the start of a two-week trial before U.S. Judge Dan Polster in Cleveland, which will decide how companies should fix a public nuisance caused by prescription opioids.

“I have been instructed to do something that no other federal judge in our country has been instructed to do,” Polster said at the start of a non-jury trial.

CVS, Walgreens and Walmart denied the counties’ claims and said they would appeal the November verdict.

The companies offered to fund a year-long program to buy back unused prescription opioid medications in the two counties. They argue that Ohio’s public nuisance law only requires them to stop the nuisance identified by the jury – an oversupply of prescription drugs – and not to address all of its harmful effects on communities.

The companies argued that if they have to do more than buy back drugs, they shouldn’t be forced to cover the costs associated with illegal drug use.

The counties argued that illegal drug use must be addressed at trial because addictions caused by the oversupply of prescription drugs have created a market for illicit drugs like heroin and synthetic fentanyl.

The opioid epidemic in the United States has caused more than 500,000 overdose deaths in two decades, according to government data. More than 3,300 opioid lawsuits have been filed nationwide against drugmakers, distributors and drugstore chains, leading to a recent flurry of proposed settlements.

The Ohio counties public nuisance theory has rarely been tested in trial and has had mixed results in other courts.

Oklahoma’s highest court on November 9 overturned a $465 million judgment against Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N), and a California judge in November ruled in favor of four drugmakers in a lawsuit filed by several large counties.

A New York jury in December found drugmaker Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd (TEVA.TA) liable for causing a public nuisance in the state, although the amount Teva must pay will be determined in a trial later in 2022.

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Reporting by Grant Segall in Cleveland and Dietrich Knauth in New York; edited by Bill Berkrot

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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