By CURT ANDERSON – Associated Press
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — A trial opened on Monday in Florida’s opioid epidemic lawsuit against pharmacy chain Walgreens, which accuses state officials of prioritizing profits over health by improperly dispensing millions of powerful painkillers, causing tens of thousands of deaths .
The trial in Pasco County, north of Tampa, comes after other defendants in the Florida lawsuit, including drugstore chain CVS, settled an estimated $870 million. The state could seek similarly massive damages from Walgreens in a jury trial that is expected to last several weeks.
OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma has a tentative nationwide deal that includes $6 billion in cash from members of the Sackler family, who own the company. In total, settlements, civil and criminal penalties across the country have totaled more than $45 billion since 2007, according to a tally by the Associated Press.
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In Florida, the state’s case hangs on allegations that from May 2006 to June 2021, Walgreens distributed a total of more than 4.3 billion opioid pills in Florida, more than half contained one or more readily identifiable red flags of abuse, fraud and addiction, which the company should have noticed and acted upon.
“The evidence will show that Walgreens knowingly profited from the opioid crisis,” prosecutor Jim Webster said in an opening statement attended by Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody. “Walgreens wasn’t just greedy. It fueled the opioid crisis that was killing people.”
Based in Deerfield, Illinois, Walgreens operates more than 9,000 stores in all 50 states, according to the company’s website. About 820 of these locations are in Florida.
Walgreens attorney Steve Derringer told jurors to focus on how manufacturers like Purdue Pharma misled pharmacies about opioid-dependent properties. He also noted that Florida did little when the opioid epidemic hit, particularly the predatory “pill mills” that proliferated in the state before a crackdown eventually ended them.
“Walgreens had nothing to do with it,” Derringer said in his opening statement. “They (drug companies) caused this epidemic by misrepresenting the risks and benefits for pharmacies.”
The opioid epidemic has been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the US over the past two decades, including those from prescription pain relievers such as OxyContin and generic oxycodone, and illicit drugs such as heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl.
In Florida, Webster said, between 1999 and 2020, more than 39,000 Floridians died from opioid abuse or related problems caused by a shady doctor, falsified prescriptions, or vast amounts of drugs that appear to be in excess of what is necessary for any given patient.
“Walgreens was the last line of defense,” Webster said. “Walgreens has breached its duty to investigate suspect recipes.”
Florida has spent about $14 billion on multiple opioid-related costs over the past 20 years, ranging from criminal justice to drug rehabilitation for addicts to treating opioid-dependent infants, Webster said. The state is demanding billions in damages in the Walgreens case.
In the same case, Moody, CVS Health Corp. and CVS Pharmacy Inc. would pay the state $484 million. Teva Pharmaceuticals Industries Ltd. agreed to pay $195 million and Allergan PLC more than $134 million.
Florida has previously received millions of dollars in opioid settlements involving McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., Johnson & Johnson Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Corp. were involved.
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