Jury finds CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid liable for opioid crisis

Three leading pharmacy chains triggered the nation’s opioid crisis by overprescribing medication that was addictive and often deadly, a Manhattan federal jury said on Thursday.

The verdict on racketeering charges could result in civil penalties of hundreds of millions of dollars against CVS Health Corp., Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. and Rite Aid Corp.

The three companies “have been found to be directly responsible for the death and serious injuries associated with their overprescribing and distribution of oxycodone, a class of opioid medication,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said in a statement.

Officials with Walgreens, Rite Aid and CVS said they would appeal. The three companies are already facing civil penalties after a California judge in 2015 found they participated in a broad conspiracy that prompted the wave of opioid deaths in that state.

“CVS Health respectfully disagrees with the decision and the award of prejudgment interest, which is currently being assessed. We intend to appeal,” said a statement from the Boston-based company. “Our opioid policies reflect our longstanding commitment to public health and safety.”

Walgreens said the jury verdicts against it were without merit.

“Since 2003, we have operated at the forefront of addressing the opioid crisis, working with our customers and patients to ensure that we are responsible stewards of their health and safety,” Walgreens said in a statement. “We are currently reviewing the case, with legal counsel, and will actively defend our position on appeal.”

Representatives of Rite Aid did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The case against the three drug chains was brought by New York state’s attorney general as well as other states, including New York.

In all, the jury awarded $124 million to Sherra Hatcher, whose mother died of cancer from abuse of opioids. At a trial that ran longer than expected, jurors found that the defendants were personally liable in 17 of 23 claims.

“For that kind of pain and suffering and suffering, I don’t think anyone could imagine,” Hatcher’s lawyer, Daniel Gitner, said in an interview.

The case was one of numerous lawsuits filed by state and local governments across the country seeking damages from drug manufacturers and distributors for the opioid epidemic.

It was the first jury verdict in the flurry of state and local litigation that followed New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s 2014 announcement that the state was suing CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid.

The trials in New York followed a $290 million settlement between the pharmaceutical companies and 31 states, including New York, and Washington, D.C., to address the opioid crisis.

CVS and Walgreens were sued under a racketeering statute that limits their liability to a fraction of the losses suffered by the state and local governments, who are among the most affected by the epidemic.

Lawyers for the companies said the allegations in the civil suit amounted to over-zealous litigation from municipalities seeking to use the criminal and civil justice systems to regulate the industry.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs, including a former New York City prosecutor, said the drug companies helped fuel the epidemic with deceptive marketing of opioids.

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