A US federal judge in Cleveland awarded $650m in damages Wednesday to two Ohio counties that won a landmark lawsuit against national pharmacy chains CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, claiming the way they distributed opioids to customers caused severe harm to communities.
United States District Judge Dan Polster said in the ruling that the money will be used to abate a continuing opioid crisis in Lake and Trumbull counties, outside Cleveland. Attorneys for the counties had put the price tag at $1bn for the damage done to each of the counties.
Lake County is to receive $306m over 15 years. Trumbull County is to receive $344m over the same period. Polster ordered the companies to pay nearly $87m to cover the first two years of the abatement plan.
In his ruling, Polster admonished the three companies, saying they “squandered the opportunity to present a meaningful plan to abate the nuisance”.
Walmart issued a statement saying the counties’ attorneys “sued Walmart in search of deep pockets, and this judgment follows a trial that was engineered to favor the plaintiffs’ attorneys and was riddled with remarkable legal and factual mistakes. We will appeal.”
A Walgreens spokesperson also said the company would appeal.
“The facts and the law did not support the jury verdict last fall, and they do not support the court’s decision now,” said spokesperson Fraser Engerman. “The 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 and compounded those errors in reaching its ruling regarding damages.”
CVS did not immediately respond to the Associated Press for a request for comment.
“The news today means that we will soon have the long-awaited resources necessary to extend aid to properly address the harms caused by this devastating epidemic,” Trumbull County Commissioner Frank Fuda said in a statement.
Lake County Commissioner John Hamercheck in a statement said: “Today marks the start of a new day in our fight to end the opioid epidemic.”
A jury returned a verdict in November in favour of the counties after a six-week trial. It was then left to Polster to decide how much the counties should receive from the three pharmacy companies. He heard testimony in May to determine how much in damages the counties should receive.
CVS is based in Rhode Island, Walgreens in Illinois and Walmart in Arkansas.
The counties convinced the jury that the pharmacies played an outsized role in creating a public nuisance in the way they dispensed pain medication into their communities.
It was the first time pharmacy companies completed a trial to defend themselves in a drug crisis that has killed a half-million Americans since 1999.
Attorneys for the pharmacy chains maintained they had policies to stem the flow of pills when their pharmacists had concerns and would notify authorities about suspicious orders from doctors. They also said it was doctors who controlled how many pills were prescribed for legitimate medical needs not their pharmacies.
The pharmacy chains said after the trial they would appeal the jury’s verdict.
Two chains — Rite Aid and Giant Eagle — settled lawsuits with the counties before trial. The amounts they paid have not been disclosed publicly.
Mark Lanier, an attorney for the counties, said during trial that the pharmacies were attempting to blame everyone but themselves.
The opioid crisis has overwhelmed courts, social service agencies and law enforcement in Ohio’s blue-collar corner east of Cleveland, leaving behind heartbroken families and babies born to addicted mothers, Lanier told jurors.
Roughly 80 million prescription painkillers were dispensed in Trumbull County alone between 2012 and 2016 — equivalent to 400 for every resident. In Lake County, some 61 million pills were distributed during that period.
The rise in physicians prescribing pain medications such as oxycodone and hydrocodone came as medical groups began recognising that patients have the right to be treated for pain, Kaspar Stoffelmayr, an attorney for Walgreens, said at the opening of the trial.
The problem, he said, was “pharmaceutical manufacturers tricked doctors into writing way too many pills.”
The counties said pharmacies should be the last line of defence to prevent the pills from getting into the wrong hands.
The trial before Polster was part of a broader constellation of about 3,000 federal opioid lawsuits consolidated under his supervision. Other cases are moving ahead in state courts.
Kevin Roy, chief public policy officer at Shatterproof, an organisation that advocates for solutions to addiction, said in November that the verdict could lead pharmacies to follow the path of major distribution companies and some drugmakers that have reached nationwide settlements of opioid cases worth billions. So far, no pharmacy has reached a nationwide settlement.