Pharmacy chains CVS, Walgreens, Walmart and Giant Eagle have claimed their actions in dispensing opioids were legal as trial gets underway in a lawsuit in Cleveland. File photo by LizM/Pixabay
Oct. 4 (UPI) -- A landmark federal trial began Monday in Cleveland in which major U.S. pharmacy chains such as CVS, Walgreens, Walmart and Giant Eagle are accused of helping fuel the opioid crisis.
U.S. District Court Judge Dan Polster opened the proceedings by instructing jurors to disregard accounts of the crisis they may have seen on television or in other forms of popular culture, NPR reported.
The judge's admonishments kicked off what is expected to be a "bellwether" trial. Attorneys representing victims of prescription opioids claim the pharmacies played a key role in fueling the crisis, disregarding their legal duties to block suspicious orders of controlled substances such as prescription opioids.
Lake and Trumbull counties in Ohio are suing the four pharmacy chains, saying their failures led to a wave of prescribed opioids inundating the communities. The result, they claim, was a massive crisis of addiction and needless death.
If the pharmacy chains are found liable they could be ordered to pay billions of dollars to help address fallout from the epidemic in a precedent-setting decision on corporate responsibility, analysts say.
"Defendants have contributed substantially to the opioid crisis by selling and distributing far greater quantities of prescription opioids than they know could be necessary for legitimate medical uses, while failing to report and to take steps to halt suspicious orders and sales, thereby exacerbating the oversupply of such drugs and fueling an illegal secondary market," they claimed in the suit filed last year.
The over-prescription of opioids resulted in more than 183,000 U.S. overdose deaths between 1999 and 2015 as Lake and Turnbull counties were "swept up in what the Centers for Disease Control has called a 'public health epidemic,'" the attorneys claimed.
In the complaint, the counties allege that CVS worked with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma to offer its pharmacists seminars on pain management so they would be able to reassure patients and doctors about the safety of opioids.
CVS, Walgreens, Walmart and Giant Eagle, however, reject the arguments that they bear responsibility for the opioid crisis.
"When it comes to controlled substances, pharmacists take the appropriate steps under the circumstances of each prescription to guard against filling illegitimate prescriptions, while still working to make sure that patients suffering in real pain are able to obtain the medications their doctors have prescribed," Walgreens attorneys wrote in a court brief.