Austin's NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Crime & Justice

3 of America's biggest pharmacy chains have been found liable for the opioid crisis

Oxycodone pills. A jury in Ohio on Tuesday found major Pharmaceutical chains liable for helping fuel the opioid crisis.
Marie Hickman
Getty Images
Oxycodone pills. A jury in Ohio on Tuesday found major Pharmaceutical chains liable for helping fuel the opioid crisis.

Updated November 23, 2021 at 8:23 PM ET

A federal jury on Tuesday found three of the nation's biggest pharmacy chains, CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, liable for helping to fuel the U.S. opioid crisis — a decision that's expected to have legal repercussions as thousands of similar lawsuits move forward in courts across the country.

Jurors concluded that the pharmacies contributed to a so-called public nuisance in Lake and Trumbull counties in Ohio by selling and dispensing huge quantities of prescription pain pills.

Some of those medications initially purchased legally wound up being sold on the black market.

Tuesday's verdict is expected to resonate nationally, as the three chains face thousands of similar lawsuits filed by U.S. communities grappling with the opioid crisis.

A separate legal proceeding will now take place to determine how much the companies will have to pay to help remedy the crisis, with damages likely to run into the billions of dollars.

In a statement, attorneys for the Ohio counties that filed this federal lawsuit described the jury's decision as a "milestone victory" in the effort to hold companies accountable for an addiction crisis that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

"For decades, pharmacy chains have watched as the pills flowing out of their doors cause harm and failed to take action as required by federal law," the attorneys said.

Executives for the pharmacy chains have long maintained they did nothing wrong and dispensed pills only after prescriptions had been written by licensed health care providers.

In a statement sent to NPR, a Walmart spokesman blasted the verdict and criticized the way the trial was handled by Judge Dan Polster, who has managed much of the federal opioid litigation now underway in the U.S.

"We will appeal this flawed verdict, which is a reflection of a trial that was engineered to favor the plaintiffs' attorneys and was riddled with remarkable legal and factual mistakes," said Walmart's statement.

A spokesperson for CVS also promised an appeal in a statement sent to NPR.

"We strongly disagree with the decision," the statement said. "Pharmacists fill legal prescriptions written by DEA-licensed doctors who prescribe legal, FDA-approved substances to treat actual patients in need."

In a separate statement to NPR from Walgreens, a spokesperson described the verdict as disappointing. "The facts and the law do not support the verdict. We believe the trial court committed significant legal errors in allowing the case to go before a jury," it said.

This federal verdict comes at a time when efforts in state courts to hold corporations accountable for the opioid crisis have hit major legal roadblocks.

This month, Oklahoma's Supreme Court overturned a judgment against drugmaker Johnson & Johnson worth roughly $460 million that was based on the same "public nuisance" legal argument.

A state judge in California also declined to hold drug companies accountable for any role in spurring the opioid crisis in communities in that state.

Opioid lawsuits continue to move forward in other venues around the U.S., including in New York and Washington state.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Related Content
  • The Biden administration scrambles to respond as new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show overdose deaths surged to more than 100,000 fatalities.
  • As demand for veteran mental health services spiked in recent months, Texas has begun to invest resources into a novel treatment for PTSD.
  • From Texas Standard:While the COVID 19 pandemic is a global health crisis in its own right, the lockdowns and restrictions surrounding it have caused other, smaller scale health crises. Including a revival of the opioid epidemic in AmericaAfter years of gains in reducing overdose deaths, numbers are back up again. Particularly hard hit are poor and rural areas that have seen hospital closures and dwindling healthcare access.But an initiative from Texas A&M University aims to better equip doctors and mental health providers to deal with opioid use in their communities.Dr Dheeraj Raina is a psychiatrist specializing in addiction medicine.On a recent Zoom call, he spoke to more than 40 doctors, counselors and students about a concept in behavioral health called the “stages of change,” and how it relates to substance use disorders.“We have to recognize that progression through stages of change is not linear, not guaranteed and not time bound,” he said. “Meaning that individuals do not go in a steady fashion from precontemplation to preparation for maintenance. They will frequently bounce back and forth.”The lecture is part of a new initiative from Texas A&M Health Science Center called the Empower TeleEcho program. It’s a series of free webinars for healthcare providers who want to learn more about helping patients with substance use issues - which experts say have increased dramatically during the pandemic.The goal of the program is to connect medical professionals to experts in addiction care.“It's mentoring health care providers in rural areas who may not have the knowledge or expertise to care for patients with certain conditions,” said Chinelo Nsobundu, the program manager for the Empower initiative.Each session starts out with a 30 minute lecture on a topic relating to best practices in treating substance abuse disorders, like addressing stigma around addiction, or how opioid use presents in adolescents. Then, presenters discuss a case study featuring real patient scenarios and answer questions about treatment strategies.“The providers are able to provide some kind of mentorship or guidance in terms of what that health care provider can do to treat and manage this particular individual that they may not have been doing in their clinical practice,” Nsobundu said.The program kicked off at the beginning of the year, with financial backing from the health insurance company Amerigroup. And the timing isn’t coincidental. Substance abuse – and opioid overdoses in particular – have been on the rise in the past year.“The number of both fatal and non-fatal overdoses due to opioids has dramatically increased in Texas and in the United States,” said Dr. Joy Alonzo, cochair of Texas A&M’s Opioid Task Force, which oversees the Empower program. “This has been one of the most concerning phenomenons, as a public health issue, that we've noticed since the pandemic started.”Opioid overdoses were trending downward between 2016 and 2019. Then came COVID lockdowns.“We were making a lot of headway,” Alonzo said. “And then when the pandemic hit all that ground to a halt and people were not able to access care, people that have substance use disorders were not able to go to their practitioners.”According to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control, opioid overdose deaths in 2020 rose nearly 30% over the previous year. More than 90,000 people died of overdoses last year - the highest number on record.Factors like social isolation and lack of access to care during the pandemic likely contributed to the spike, Alonzo said.“So when folks don't get the psychosocial supports that they need, and they don't have that community around them, they tend to relapse. It's very, very impactful to their state,” Alonzo said.She said that some general practitioners who don’t specialize in addiction treatment may not feel equipped to navigate the challenges of treating substance use issues. Perhaps they simply don’t come across the issue very often.That’s where connecting with trained addiction medicine specialists through the Empower program can help.“This may be the first time since they went to medical school that they've actually had any access to an expert in these particular treatment areas,” Alonzo said. “So we want to make sure that that anybody who wants to provide treatment has the tools that they need as a family practitioner or a nurse practitioner” One person who said he’s already benefited from the sessions is James Mazza. He’s community coalition coordinator for the Waco-area nonprofit Voice, which focuses on wellness education for youth and their parents, including educating about drug abuse.Mazza said that overdoses in the Waco area have more or less kept pace with national trends - rising about 25 percent since the pandemic began. He also said that lack of access to care was a big driver. With doctors and hospitals stretched thin with COVID cases, appointments for pain management became harder to come by.“People have lost access to their doctors, so they're not able to actually access pain medication or receive pharmacological advice,” he said. “And so people that have developed an addiction to pain medication are having to turn to street drugs and the synthetic opioids.”Mazza said one of the biggest roadblocks to addressing opioid abuse in his community is the stigma around the condition.“I think a lot of what you're seeing in Waco is people don't think that “good people” and I'm putting this in air quotes...but “good people” don't get addicted to medications, and that's just flat out not true. Anybody can get addicted to them,” Mazza said.That can make people afraid of admitting they have a problem or seeking help. So dispelling the stigma is one of Mazza's top priorities. He said that participating in the A&M program has helped him better understand how other communities are dealing with opioid use.“It's a great way to share information on how other people are treating problems in their community,” Mazza said. “Especially if it's something like, you know, Waco is not necessarily a large community, but it's not a small community, either. So there are some things that we have seen, but maybe not in as depth or as an intense as somebody who is from Austin or Dallas”Alonzo, with the Opioid Task Force, said that ongoing education and improved treatment options in parts of the state outside major urban centers is key to supporting those struggling with opioid use, and to reversing the rise in overdoses brought on by the pandemic.“It's a war every day for these folks. Every day they have to recommit to staying in recovery. And without that supportive community, it's very difficult.”Texas A&M Health Science Center’s Empower TeleEcho program is free of charge and any healthcare providers, pharmacists, and mental health professionals in Texas are able to attend.
  • Lawmakers also increased the allowable level of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. But not by much.
  • The Austin area saw a nearly 40% increase in fatal overdoses during the pandemic.
  • Emergency rules established during the pandemic are set to expire at the end of August.
  • More than 93,000 people died of a drug overdose in the U.S. last year, according to new CDC data. Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids accounted primarily for the rise, which the pandemic exacerbated.
  • The total, estimated by researchers at the University of Washington, is 57% higher than the official death toll. Worldwide, they said, COVID-19 deaths are nearing 7 million, twice the official total.
  • Researchers say cocaine, meth and other street drugs are increasingly contaminated with deadly synthetic opioids, contributing to a major spike in deaths.
  • The CDC says hospitals saw a lot more emergency cases involving drug overdoses, as well as mental health crises and suicide attempts. Many emergency departments weren't ready.
  • New data from the CDC show more than 19,000 Americans died from drug overdoses during the first three months of 2020 with the country on pace to set a grim new record.
  • Emergency medical providers in Austin are working with state health officials to expand treatment services for people who overdose on opioids.The Texas…
  • Nearly 73,000 people died from liver disease and other alcohol-related illnesses in 2017, up from just under 36,000 deaths in 1999. Alcohol was even more deadly than illicit drugs, including opioids.
  • The largest-ever federal action concerning the U.S. opioid crisis has only gotten more complicated amid a slew of recent settlements. So here's a brief(ish) explainer breaking it down.
  • The bankruptcy follows the Sackler family, which owns Purdue, agreeing to surrender control of the company and offering $3 billion in cash to opioid-hit communities.
  • In a landmark ruling, Judge Thad Balkman ruled in favor of Oklahoma in its lawsuit to hold the drugmaker accountable for the costs of opioid addiction in the state.
  • A study looked at who gets prescriptions for buprenorphine, and found that white patients are almost 35 times as likely to get the lifesaving addiction treatment than African Americans.