Damages will be paid over 15 years to two Ohio state counties as American pharmacy chains pay for their "roles in failing to control the spread of deadly and addictive prescription opioids".

It was the first time pharmacy companies completed a trial to defend themselves in a drug crisis that has killed a half-million Americans since 1999.
It was the first time pharmacy companies completed a trial to defend themselves in a drug crisis that has killed a half-million Americans since 1999. (AP)

A federal judge in Cleveland has awarded $650 million in damages to two Ohio counties that won a landmark lawsuit against US pharmacy chains CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, claiming the way they distributed opioids to customers caused severe harm to communities.

US District Judge Dan Polster said in the ruling on Wednesday that the money will be used to abate a continuing opioid crisis in Lake and Trumbull counties, outside Cleveland. Attorneys for the counties had put the price tag at $1 billion for the damage done to each of the counties.

The penalties will account for the companies' "roles in failing to control the spread of deadly and addictive prescription opioids," said plaintiffs' lawyers at the Lanier Law Firm.

More than 500 opioid overdose deaths in the two counties between 2015 and 2019 "could be directly or indirectly linked" to prescription opioids or prescription painkillers, the Lanier firm said, citing testimony presented during the litigation.

READ MORE: J&J settles with Ohio counties to tune of $20.4M ahead of opioid trial

Distribution of damages

Lake County is to receive $306 million over 15 years. Trumbull County is to receive $444 million over the same period. Polster ordered the companies to pay nearly $87 million to cover the first two years.

A jury returned a verdict in November in favour of the counties after a six-week trial. It was then left to Polster to decide how much the counties should receive from the three pharmacy companies. He heard testimony in May to determine how much in damages the counties should receive.

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 into their communities.

It was the first time pharmacy companies completed a trial to defend themselves in a drug crisis that has killed a half-million Americans since 1999.

READ MORE: Four drug firms agree to pay $26 billion in proposed US opioid settlement

Pharmacy chains deflect blame

Attorneys for the pharmacy chains maintained they had policies to stem the flow of pills when their pharmacists had concerns. They also said it was doctors who controlled how many pills were prescribed for legitimate medical needs, not their pharmacies.

The pharmacy chains said after the trial 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 disclosed publicly.

The opioid crisis has overwhelmed courts, social services agencies and law enforcement in Ohio’s blue-collar corner east of Cleveland, leaving behind heartbroken families and babies born to addicted mothers, Lanier told jurors.

400 pills per resident in 4 years

Roughly 80 million prescription painkillers were dispensed in Trumbull County alone between 2012 and 2016 — equivalent to 400 for every resident. In Lake County, some 61 million pills were distributed during that period.

The rise in physicians prescribing pain medications such as oxycodone and hydrocodone came as medical groups began recognising that patients have the right to be treated for pain, Kaspar Stoffelmayr, an attorney for Walgreens, said at the opening of the trial.

The counties said pharmacies should be the last line of defence to prevent the pills from getting into the wrong hands.

The trial before Polster was part of a broader constellation of about 3,000 federal opioid lawsuits consolidated under his supervision. 

Other cases are moving ahead in state courts.

READ MORE: US pharma giants to pay $590M to settle opioid epidemic claims

Source: AP