CLEVELAND (AP) — A federal judge in Cleveland awarded $650 million in damages Wednesday to two Ohio counties that won a landmark lawsuit against national drugstore chains CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, alleging that the way they distributed opioids to customers caused serious damage to the communities.
US District Judge Dan Polster said in the ruling that the money will be used to mitigate an ongoing opioid crisis in Lake and Trumbull counties, outside Cleveland. The county attorneys had set the price at $1 billion for the damages caused to each of the counties.
Lake County will receive $306 million over 15 years. Trumbull County will receive $444 million during the same period. Polster ordered the companies to pay nearly $87 million to cover the first two years.
In his ruling, Polster admonished all three companies, saying they “squandered an opportunity to come up with a meaningful plan to reduce the nuisance.”
A jury returned a verdict in favor of the counties in November after a six-week trial. Polster was then left to decide how much the counties should receive from the three drug companies. He heard testimony in May to determine how much the counties should receive in damages.
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 in their communities.
It was the first time pharmaceutical companies had filed a lawsuit to defend themselves in a drug crisis that has killed half a million Americans since 1999.
Lawyers for the pharmacy chains maintained they had policies to stop the flow of pills when their pharmacists had concerns and notified authorities of suspicious doctor orders. They also said it was doctors who controlled how many pills were prescribed for legitimate medical needs, not their pharmacies.
The drugstore chains said after the trial that 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 publicly disclosed.
Mark Lanier, attorney for the counties, said during the trial that the pharmacies were trying to blame everyone but themselves.
The opioid crisis has overwhelmed courts, social service agencies and law enforcement in the blue-collar corner of Ohio east of Cleveland, leaving behind bereaved families and babies born to addicted mothers, Lanier told the jury.
Approximately 80 million prescription pain relievers were dispensed in Trumbull County alone between 2012 and 2016, which works out to 400 per resident. In Lake County, some 61 million pills were distributed during that period.
The surge in doctors prescribing pain medications like oxycodone and hydrocodone came as medical groups began to recognize that patients have a right to pain treatment, Walgreens attorney Kaspar Stoffelmayr said at the opening of the trial. .
The problem, he said, was that “pharmaceutical manufacturers tricked doctors into writing too many pills.”
The counties said pharmacies should be the last line of defense to prevent pills from falling into the wrong hands.
The Polster trial was part of a larger constellation of some 3,000 federal opioid lawsuits consolidated under his watch. Other cases are moving forward in state courts.
Kevin Roy, director of public policy for Shatterproof, an organization that advocates for addiction solutions, said in November that the verdict could lead pharmacies to go the way of major distribution companies and some drugmakers who have come to nationwide settlements for opioid cases worth billions. So far, no pharmacy has reached an agreement at the national level.