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Landmark Opioid Case Brought by Ohio Counties Moves Forward 

Ohio has seen more opioid deaths and addictions per capita than any other state except for West Virginia. There is more of a need for inpatient treatment in Ohio now than ever. Thousands of Ohio residents have suffered through the pains of opioid addiction and now two Ohio counties are placing the blame with several opioid distributors, manufacturers, and even one retail giant. 

Jury selection in one of the first landmark opioid trials in Ohio has already begun and is expected to be completed shortly. Lawyers representing two Ohio counties believe they have the evidence to prove opioid manufacturers and distributors harmed public health while knowing of the dangers of opioids. 

The Case For The Ohio Counties

Ohio’s Cuyahoga and Summit counties presented legal appears stating “the opioid epidemic… constitutes an unreasonable interference with public health, public safety, public peace or public comfort and that the blame belongs to the opioid industry.”

The two counties have sued drug manufacturers for billions of dollars to help subsidize addiction treatment, provide further healthy services, and more to help clean up the mess of the ongoing opioid crisis. The two Ohio counties are part of a nationwide contingent representing 2,500 cities, Native American tribes, and several other municipalities. 

On the other side of the trial are seven drug companies including drug manufacturers Johnson and Johnson and Teva Pharmaceuticals; drug distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, Henry Schein; and the chain retailer Walgreens. Walgreens is only been sued over its warehousing and distributing of opioids and not for questionable dispensing methods. 

The new arguments in the federal case don’t add much about the trial that hasn’t already been revealed in the two years of pre-trial hearings and arguments though it’s the first peek on the trial’s outline. 

Drug Companies Defense

A subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson Janssen Pharmaceuticals argued that the company cannot be held liable for starting the worst drug crisis the nation as ever seen by pointing to their low abuse rates. “Janssen’s medications did not cause or contribute to that crisis,” said Janssen’s legal team. “Janssen’s medications had among the lowest rates of abuse and diversion of any [potentially abused] prescription opioid on the market. Nor can plaintiffs blame the crisis on Janssen’s marketing.” Janssen points to a similar suit in Oklahoma and contends that it’s two primary opioid products Duragesic and Nucynta ER make up less than 1% of opioids prescribed in Cuyahoga and Summit counties. 

Janssen noted that Duragesic, a fentanyl-based skin patch painkiller, is very difficult to abuse and has not caused the amount of overdose and addiction compared to other opioids. According to the company, “The Duragesic patch and Nucynta ER consistently ranked among the least abused and diverted opioid products — in Ohio or anywhere else.”

The company lost the suit in Oklahoma in August and was ordered by Judge Thad Balkman to contribute over $500 million into stemming the opioid crisis. According to Judge Balkman, the $500 million payout covers only a single year of what the courts believe the company is responsible for. “It is a drug company crisis, and it begins and should end with them,” Oklahoma attorney Bradley Beckworth told a judge during the Oklahoma trial. 

Manufacturer Teva told the courts that the Ohio counties cannot prove a causal link between the harm to residents and its drug sales. Teva representatives wrote to the courts, “At trial, the counties will not be able to present testimony showing a single false statement that any Teva or Actavis Generic defendant made to a single prescriber in the counties; a single county doctor who was misled by anything that they said or did; or a single patient who was harmed because of a false statement.” 

Walgreens Denies Responsibility

Retailer Walgreens also diverts blame stating that the plaintiffs in the case “cannot show that any conduct by Walgreens resulted in the diversion of prescription opioid medications that could have caused the harms that plaintiffs allege.”

Walgreens believes that it did nothing wrong in its distribution process and claims the trial will illustrate that. According to Walgreens, “its distribution centers always followed appropriate protocols for monitoring suspicious orders, reporting them to [the Drug Enforcement Administration] and evaluating whether they should be shipped.”

According to federal law all distributors including Walgreens, not the DEA, are responsible for searching for and finding any illicit activity, like orders being diverted or unusual amounts of opioid prescriptions from one doctor or through one clinic. 

The two Ohio counties are being used as test cases as part of the larger suit that accuses drug manufacturers and distributors of thousands of overdose deaths and addictions resulting from their handling and response to the opioid crisis. 

The counties accuse drug companies of creating a public nuisance that harmed the health of its residents. Attorneys from the two counties state that drug manufacturers operated together in the same way a street gang would to push opioid prescriptions on doctors and vulnerable patients. 

Overdose Epidemic

According to government data, more than 200,000 people died of overdoses from prescription narcotics since 1999. Though those numbers cover all classes of prescription drugs, opioids have the highest rates of addiction and overdose.

Other drug companies and manufacturers of opioids have already settled with the Ohio counties or been dropped as defendants in the suit. Pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of the notorious prescription opioid Oxycontin, is assembling a $10-12 billion settlement with attorneys and representatives from nearly every U.S. state. 

The case will make a large determination on how other states and municipalities go after pharmaceutical companies or manufacturers if they feel their community has been harmed by the drug makers. No matter the outcome of the trials, the attitude behind opioid deaths and responsibility has shifted from individuals to the drug companies and their culpability. Proposals for a nationwide settlement are also on the table. 

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