Attorneys: Pharmacy companies blameless for opioid crisis

By Mark Gillispie - Associated Press

CLEVELAND (AP) — There is no evidence that retail pharmacy chains contributed to the opioid crisis that is raging in two Ohio counties outside Cleveland, attorneys for three of the companies said during opening statements on Tuesday.

Lake and Trumbull counties have sued CVS, Walgreens, Walmart and Giant Eagle in federal court in Cleveland claiming the companies created a public nuisance by dispensing pain pills that were diverted for illegal use. The cost of abating the crisis for each county is around $1 billion, their attorneys contend.

Attorneys for CVS, Walmart and Giant Eagle gave their opening statements Tuesday. Attorneys for Walgreens and the counties gave theirs on Monday.

CVS attorney Eric Delinsky told the jury the counties are not claiming that someone has been hurt in the counties, but that the companies’ pharmacies engaged in conduct “so widespread that they are interfering with the rights of the entire public at large.”

“Absolutely not,” Delinsky said. “This case is about today. The public nuisance has to exist today, not something CVS did seven years ago.”

CVS is in the business of filling prescriptions written by physicians for legitimate medical needs, Delinsky and the other company attorneys have argued.

“The big pictures is: CVS is not the substantial cause of a public nuisance,” Delinsky said.

Diane Sullivan, an attorney for the Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle grocery chain, said the allegations made by the companies are causing reputational harm to the company and its pharmacists.

“These are very personal attacks,” Sullivan said. “In this country it’s easy to file lawsuits, to say all kinds of things, to make all kinds of allegations, to throw mud to win a lawsuit.”

Sullivan referred to Monday’s opening statement by one of the counties’ attorneys, Mark Lanier, which included props such as a gumball machine. Lanier spent little time laying out how the counties have been harmed during that statement.

“Where was the evidence?” Sullivan asked. “Where did he talk about any evidence these pharmacists dispensed medicine that is on the street? There’s going to be a shocking lack of proof in this case.”

This is the first time pharmacy companies have gone to trial to defend themselves. The trial, which is expected to last around six weeks, could set the tone for similar claims against retail pharmacy chains by government entities across the U.S.

U.S. District Judge Dan Polster is presiding over the trial. Close to 3,000 lawsuits filed in federal courts have been consolidated under Polster’s supervision.

Rite-Aid settled with the Lake and Trumbull counties in August. The company paid Trumbull County $1.5 million. The amount paid to Lake County has not been disclosed.

The trial will be the fourth in the U.S. this year to test claims brought by governments against part of the drug industry over the toll of prescription painkillers. Verdicts or judgments have not been reached in the others thus far.

By Mark Gillispie

Associated Press