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Pharmacies Challenge $650M Opioid Verdict in Ohio Court

Pharmacies Challenge $650M Opioid Verdict in Ohio Court

Pharmacies Challenge $650M Opioid Verdict in Ohio Court

Introduction

Pharmacy giants CVS, Walmart, and Walgreens are pressing Ohio's highest court to absolve them of responsibility for contributing to an opioid epidemic in two of the state's counties, which recently secured a $650.9 million judgment against them.

Representing Walgreens, an attorney argued before the Ohio Supreme Court that state law prohibits Lake and Trumbull counties from asserting that the pharmacies' distribution of addictive pain medications created a public nuisance requiring their intervention.

The attorney cited an amendment to the Ohio Products Liability Act, enacted in 2007, which explicitly prohibits common-law public nuisance claims arising from product sales seeking compensation from manufacturers or suppliers. Emphasizing the broad and categorical nature of this language, the attorney contended that it should shield the pharmacy chains from liability.

However, some justices raised questions regarding the legislature's intent behind the statute, suggesting that its application to cases like the opioid epidemic might not have been initially contemplated. Unlike traditional product liability suits seeking damages for past injuries from defective products, the opioid case was initiated by local governments to obtain equitable relief aimed at preventing future harm rather than compensating for historical damages.

This case marked the pharmacy operators' first trial amidst a flood of litigation nationwide against drug manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacies regarding the devastating U.S. opioid addiction crisis. A federal jury in Cleveland previously determined that an oversupply of addictive pain pills, along with their diversion to the black market, constituted a public nuisance in the counties, with the companies playing a role in its propagation. Allegations included failure to heed warning signs and ensure the validity of prescriptions filled by their pharmacies, which the companies denied.

Subsequently, the overseeing U.S. District Judge ordered CVS, Walmart, and Walgreens to collectively pay $650.9 million to aid the affected counties in addressing the epidemic's consequences. Although CVS, Walmart, and Walgreens agreed to a combined $13.8 billion settlement for nationwide lawsuits brought by states and local governments, the two Ohio counties refused to settle and defended their verdict on appeal. Responding to the appeal, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sought the Ohio Supreme Court's review, citing "novel and unresolved questions" of state law.

Counsel for the counties argued that Ohio law did not preclude the jury from issuing equitable relief to address future harms, compelling the companies to alter their dispensing practices and contribute to addiction mitigation efforts in the affected communities.

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