SF Wins Landmark Case Against Walgreens for Opioid Crisis
By Rya Jetha, Bay City News Foundation
A federal court judge found Walgreens liable for contributing to the opioid epidemic in San Francisco in a trial that concluded on Wednesday.
The court ruled that Walgreens over-dispensed opioids without proper due diligence and failed to identify, report, and halt suspicious orders as required by law.
“This decision gives voice to the thousands of lives lost to the opioid epidemic,” said San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu. “This crisis did not come out of nowhere. It was created by the opioid industry, and local jurisdictions like San Francisco have had to shoulder the burden for far too long.”
The case against Walgreens was part of litigation San Francisco brought on behalf of the people of the state of California against the opioid industry beginning in 2018. Last month, opioid manufacturers Allergan and Teva reached a settlement agreement with San Francisco, agreeing to pay the city $34 million and provide the city $20 million worth of Narcan, the overdose reversal drug. When Allergan and Teva reached the settlement agreement, closing arguments began against the remaining defendant — Walgreens.
Judge Charles Breyer of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California wrote in his decision that “The evidence at trial established that from 2006 to 2020, Walgreens pharmacies in San Francisco dispensed hundreds of thousands of red flag opioid prescriptions without performing adequate due diligence.”
Records show that from 2006 to 2014, San Francisco County saw 1.6 million opioids distributed — enough for 22 pills a year for every person in the county. From 2015 to 2020, San Francisco saw a 478 percent increase in opioid-related overdose deaths. During that period, approximately 25 percent of visits at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital’s Emergency Department were opioid-related.
Breyer continued in his decision that “Plaintiffs proved that it is more likely than not that Walgreens pharmacies dispensed large volumes of medically illegitimate opioid prescriptions that were diverted for illicit use and that substantially contributed to the opioid epidemic in San Francisco.”
With Walgreens found liable for contributing to the opioid epidemic, the next stage of the trial will determine how much Walgreens must pay San Francisco for the public nuisance they caused. The San Francisco City Attorney’s Office has thus far secured over $120 million in cash payments and other benefits from the opioid industry toward opioid abatement and overdose prevention in San Francisco through this litigation, including $54 million from Allergan and Teva, $10 million from pharmaceutical company Endo and $60 million from opioid manufacturer Johnson & Johnson and distributors McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen.
Additionally, the city is likely to receive funding from the bankruptcy estate of Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family. San Francisco politicians, policymakers, and public health officials applauded the Breyer’s decision and welcomed the new resources San Francisco will receive after the next phase of the trial.
“For far too long, families in San Francisco and across our nation have suffered from losing loved ones to the opioid epidemic,” said San Francisco Mayor London Breed. “The street crisis we are dealing with in our city is largely fueled by the ease of access to fatal and harmful drugs. Today’s momentous decision will help further San Francisco’s efforts to prevent overdoses and save lives of those struggling with addiction.”
This trial is the fourth bellwether case in the federal opioid litigation proceedings, meaning that it indicates a trend in litigation and provides direction for plaintiffs and defendants on how they want to proceed. The federal proceedings involve more than 3,000 American cities, towns, and counties bringing opioid manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacy chains to court for fueling the opioid epidemic.
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