(Reuters) — Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. contributed to the opioid epidemic in San Francisco through its sale of prescription drugs in the city, a federal judge found on Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco said Walgreens failed to properly investigate suspicious opioid orders for nearly 15 years. How much the pharmacy chain must pay will be determined in a later trial.
Walgreens pharmacists filled hundreds of thousands of suspect opioid prescriptions from 2006 to 2020 with pharmacists who were not given the time, staff or resources to properly investigate red flags, Judge Breyer wrote.
In 2018, San Francisco sued Walgreens, as well as several drug manufacturers and distributors, over the opioid epidemic in the city, saying they created a “public nuisance”; by flooding the city with prescription opioids and failing to prevent the drugs from being diverted for illegal use.
A trial began in April, and all defendants except Walgreens reached settlements with the city before the court ruled.
Justice Breyer said San Francisco had shown that Walgreens’ lax oversight led to illegal drug use that significantly contributed to the city’s opioid epidemic.
Walgreens said it was disappointed by the ruling and intends to appeal.
“We never manufactured or marketed opioids, nor did we distribute them to the ‘pill mills’ and Internet pharmacies that fueled the crisis,” said Walgreens spokesman Fraser Engerman.
The opioid epidemic has caused more than 500,000 opioid overdose deaths over two decades, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 3,300 opioid lawsuits have been filed nationally against drugmakers, distributors and pharmacies, culminating in many of the other companies — but not the pharmacies — agreeing to proposed global settlements.
The opioid crisis has hit San Francisco hard, with opioid-related emergency room visits tripling from 886 in 2015 to 2,998 in 2020, according to the court order.
Paul Geller, an attorney who represented the city in the case, credited San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu for working to hold companies accountable for contributing to “the terrible epidemic in the Bay Area.”
Walgreens was found liable in 2021 for contributing to the opioid epidemic in a similar lawsuit from two Ohio counties. Walgreens and its co-defendants, CVS Health Inc. and Walmart, are awaiting a decision from an Ohio court on the amount they must pay to address the opioid crisis in those counties.