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Walmart to appeal federal verdict in opioid accountability lawsuit

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A federal jury this week found Walmart and pharmacy chains Walgreens and CVS liable in a lawsuit over their role in the distribution of addictive opioid medications.

Walmart, along with pharmacy competitors Walgreens and CVS, say they are not to blame for the opioid crisis gripping the nation and will appeal a trial verdict. A federal jury in the U.S. Northern District Court of Ohio found the pharmacies liable in a verdict rendered Tuesday.

The counties of Lake and Trumbull Ohio sued the companies for the ongoing distribution of opioids in their jurisdictions that plaintiffs said caused hundreds of overdoses and cost the counties more than $1 billion.

The pharmacy chains were told by the court they will pay damages to be decided by U.S. District Judge Dan Polster in Cleveland in late April or May 2022.

Arkansas-based Walmart has maintained its innocence in the opioid crisis and said it will appeal the verdict. The retail giant issued the following statement after this week's verdict:

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. Among the many problems during this trial, the judge allowed it to continue after a juror violated court rules by conducting her own research and sharing it with other jurors.

The judge even said that in his 22 years on the bench he had never seen a juror do ‘anything like’ this, and we agree with the plaintiffs’ own lawyer, when he said it was his ‘ethical obligation’ to call for a mistrial because of this juror misconduct.

Additionally, this verdict is out of step with courts around the country that have rejected plaintiffs’ novel ‘public nuisance’ liability theories in opioid lawsuits in Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, California, Oklahoma, North Dakota, and South Dakota, to name a few.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys sued Walmart in search of deep pockets while ignoring the real causes of the opioid crisis — such as pill mill doctors, illegal drugs, and regulators asleep at the switch — and they wrongly claimed pharmacists must second guess doctors in a way the law never intended and many federal and state health regulators say interferes with the doctor-patient relationship.

As a pharmacy industry leader in the fight against the opioid crisis, Walmart is proud of our pharmacists, who are dedicated to helping patients in the face of a tangled web of conflicting federal and state opioid guidelines.

CVS and Walgreens also took issue with the verdict with their attorneys claiming there are many bad actors in the opioid crisis including drug makers, government agencies, doctors and drug cartels.

Walgreens said it has had policies in place since 1997 to identify red flags of misuse around opioids and those policies have been improved over time.

“We believe the court erred in allowing the case to go before a jury on a flawed legal theory that is inconsistent with Ohio law. As we have said throughout this process, we never manufactured or marketed opioids nor did we distribute them to the ‘pill mills’ and internet pharmacies that fueled this crisis. The plaintiffs’ attempt to resolve the opioid crisis with an unprecedented expansion of public nuisance law is misguided and unsustainable,” said Fraser Engerman, corporate spokesman for Walgreens.

CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis said as the plaintiffs own experts testified, many factors have contributed to the opioid abuse issue and solving the problem will require involvement from all stakeholders in the healthcare system and all members of the community.

The Ohio case is one of five trials this year to test the claims brought by governments against various players in the drug industry.

There are cases underway currently against drug manufacturers in New York and pharmacy distributors in Washington state. Another case recently argued in West Virginia still awaits a judge’s ruling.

Earlier this month, Oklahoma’s Supreme Court overturned a 2019 judgment for $465 million against Johnson & Johnson brought by the state. Also recently in Oakland, Calif., a federal judge ruled in favor of the drug manufacturers saying the government had not proven its case.

No one disputes there is an opioid crisis in the U.S., but the retail pharmacy chains maintain they merely follow the protocol set by the U.S. government for filling opioid prescriptions as well as using their own internal controls to detect suspicious activity.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 100,000 people died from drug overdose during the year ending April 2021. The health organization said the record number of deaths were driven in part from misuse of opioids and like fentanyl.

This story comes from the staff of Talk Business & Politics, a content partner with KUAR News. You can hear the weekly program on Mondays at 6:06 p.m.