A federal jury on Tuesday found three of the nation's biggest pharmacy chains, CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, liable for helping to fuel the U.S. opioid crisis — a decision that's expected to have legal repercussions as thousands of similar lawsuits move forward in courts across the country.
Jurors concluded that the pharmacies contributed to a so-called public nuisance in Lake and Trumbull counties in Ohio by selling and dispensing huge quantities of prescription pain pills.
Some of those medications initially purchased legally wound up being sold on the black market.
Tuesday's verdict is expected to resonate nationally, as the three chains face thousands of similar lawsuits filed by U.S. communities grappling with the opioid crisis.
A separate legal proceeding will now take place to determine how much the companies will have to pay to help remedy the crisis, with damages likely to run into the billions of dollars.
In a statement, attorneys for the Ohio counties that filed this federal lawsuit described the jury's decision as a "milestone victory" in the effort to hold companies accountable for an addiction crisis that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.
"For decades, pharmacy chains have watched as the pills flowing out of their doors cause harm and failed to take action as required by federal law," the attorneys said.
Executives for the pharmacy chains have long maintained they did nothing wrong and dispensed pills only after prescriptions had been written by licensed health care providers.
In a statement sent to NPR, a Walmart spokesman blasted the verdict and criticized the way the trial was handled by Judge Dan Polster, who has managed much of the federal opioid litigation now underway in the U.S.
"We will appeal this flawed verdict, which is a reflection of a trial that was engineered to favor the plaintiffs' attorneys and was riddled with remarkable legal and factual mistakes," said Walmart's statement.
A spokesperson for CVS also promised an appeal in a statement sent to NPR.
"We strongly disagree with the decision," the statement said. "Pharmacists fill legal prescriptions written by DEA-licensed doctors who prescribe legal, FDA-approved substances to treat actual patients in need."
In a separate statement to NPR from Walgreens, a spokesperson described the verdict as disappointing. "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," it said.
This federal verdict comes at a time when efforts in state courts to hold corporations accountable for the opioid crisis have hit major legal roadblocks.
This month, Oklahoma's Supreme Court overturned a judgment against drugmaker Johnson & Johnson worth roughly $460 million that was based on the same "public nuisance" legal argument.
A state judge in California also declined to hold drug companies accountable for any role in spurring the opioid crisis in communities in that state.
Opioid lawsuits continue to move forward in other venues around the U.S., including in New York and Washington state.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A federal jury says three giant pharmacy chains are responsible for the abuse of drugs that they sold. The jury ruled against CVS, Walgreens and Walmart for their sales of opioids. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann has been covering this trial Brian, good morning.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What makes this an important judgment?
MANN: This is the first jury in the country to hold these pharmacy chains accountable in this way for the opioid crisis. Mark Lanier is one of the lead attorneys at the center of the case representing communities near Cleveland, Ohio. He says this verdict made it clear CVS, Walgreens and Walmart didn't do enough to keep their customers safe as more and more of these highly addictive opioid pills went out the door.
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MARK LANIER: Through this trial, the jury was able to assess those national measures that had been put in place by these pharmaceutical chains and shout out from the rooftops inadequate.
MANN: Inadequate, he says, because these pharmacy chains kept selling more and more pills for years after it was clear addiction rates and overdoses were surging. Now a separate legal process will determine how big the payout to these communities will be. And, Steve, it's expected to top a billion dollars, could go as high as $2 billion.
INSKEEP: Wow. Just for these communities outside of Cleveland, Ohio.
MANN: That's right.
INSKEEP: Amazing. And, of course, these are nationwide chains. How have the companies responded?
MANN: Walmart, CVS and Walgreens all sent statements to NPR denying any wrongdoing. They say they dispense these opioid pills only after doctors wrote prescriptions. They say if anyone's at fault here, it's government regulators. The companies say they will now appeal, but this is clearly a tough moment, Steve, for these big, name brand firms, some of the highest profile corporations in America. And this verdict ties them directly to an ongoing opioid crisis. Remember, earlier this month, the CDC reported more than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in a 12-month period - a devastating new record.
INSKEEP: Which raises a question - what does this one judgment mean for thousands of other lawsuits that might be similar?
MANN: This verdict is really seen as a validation of a legal argument that's being used in a lot of these opioid cases, but it's an argument that until now hadn't had much success. Government officials in these communities have long argued that drug companies and pharmacy chains created what's known as a public nuisance by selling all these pills recklessly and should be made to pay to clean up the mess. Two state courts - one in California, another in Oklahoma - just this month rejected this very same argument. So communities, Steve, suing the drug industry over opioids really needed a legal win, and that's what they finally got yesterday from this federal jury in Ohio.
INSKEEP: Useful to know that this verdict may not be the same in every case, and in fact it, hasn't been the same in every case.
MANN: That's right.
INSKEEP: Nevertheless, there is this particular judgment. There is money coming. What do communities intend to do with it?
MANN: Well, these court cases do come, as I mentioned, at a time when the epidemic is raging, more and more people dying at devastating numbers. So Jason Boyd is county administrator in Lake County near Cleveland, one of the communities that filed the suit.
JASON BOYD: Today's news is only going to accelerate our efforts to provide the best services we can to our family, our children, our foster parent associations, our criminal justice system.
MANN: And communities all over the U.S. say they need this kind of financial help to cope with the opioid crisis. So there's a lot at stake here, not just for people with addiction, Steve, but for parents and children and whole communities affected by the fallout from this epidemic. And then, of course, what we're seeing now for the drug industry, this verdict signals a lot of legal and financial peril ahead as all these opioid lawsuits move forward.
INSKEEP: Man. He says foster parent associations, and you instantly have a vision of families devastated by this crisis. Brian, thanks so much.
MANN: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.