San Francisco wins landmark opioid trial against Walgreens

Federal judge finds Walgreens liable for substantially contributing to the opioid crisis in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO (August 10, 2022) — San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu announced today that San Francisco acting on behalf of the People of the State of California won its landmark opioid trial against Walgreens pharmacy. Judge Charles R. Breyer of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California found Walgreens is liable for substantially contributing to the opioid epidemic in San Francisco.

City Attorney David Chiu speaks at a City Hall press conference discussing the city’s landmark legal victory against Walgreens

The Court found Walgreens over-dispensed opioids without proper due diligence and failed to identify, report, and halt suspicious orders as required by law. This is the first bench trial to decide in plaintiff’s favor in the national opioid litigation and the first bench trial to find Walgreens liable.

“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. We are grateful the Court heard our arguments and held Walgreens responsible for the damage they caused.”

“We have seen the devastating impacts of opioid addiction in our most vulnerable communities and this decision is an important step forward in our efforts to save lives,” said Dr. Grant Colfax, Director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health. “San Francisco is committed to reducing harm associated with drug use, reversing overdoses, and connecting people to the care they need. This case will provide more resources to continue our work with partners to ensure that our efforts to prevent overdose deaths and address substance use disorders are successful.”

“This win carries a resounding message that companies will be held accountable when they put profits over safety and public health,” said Aelish Baig, partner at Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP and member of the trial team for San Francisco. “We have been honored to represent the People of the State of California and to work with San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu and his team on this important case. This win is important, and the fight to hold all who fueled the epidemic accountable continues. We’re especially grateful that the court opened the trial online to the public and issued such a comprehensive, detailed opinion because it’s critical for our communities to collectively understand how this crisis unfolded.”

“The opinion tells a devastating story – it’s a history of the opioid crisis told through the story of one city, San Francisco,” Paul Geller, partner at Robbins Geller and member of Plaintiffs Executive Committee that directs the nationwide opioid litigation. “The crisis unfolded, as Judge Breyer reveals, in waves and has continued unabated for over 15 years. It is a sobering, comprehensive indictment of the callous practices that harmed so many people. I hope this decision and this story will be read in big pharma boardrooms all across the country. Every drug company is going to have to reckon with the striking, painstaking account set forth in the judge’s opinion about this conduct and the harm it creates – and ensure this never happens again.”

“This public nuisance liability trial decision is an important milestone in the national opioids litigation, which proceeds against Walgreens and other major pharmacies,” noted Lieff Cabraser Heimann and Bernstein partner Richard M. Heimann, who served as co-lead counsel in the City and County’s bellwether litigation against opioid drug manufacturers, distributors and dispensers. “We are pleased and proud that San Francisco has contributed so significantly to addressing the crisis that confronts cities and counties across the country.”

“The verdict reached on behalf of the plaintiff by Judge Breyer in San Francisco’s bellwether effort to hold opioid manufacturers and distributors accountable for their actions in creating and prolonging the devastating opioid epidemic is extraordinary, and a testament to the power of the civil justice system to redress wrongs and create justice,” noted Lieff Cabraser partner Elizabeth J. Cabraser, who also worked as co-lead on the Lieff Cabraser trial team in the City’s efforts against Walgreens and the other defendants. “Whether the outcome is a judgment, as here against Walgreens, or historic and meaningful settlements, as to the other defendants, the result is a win for everyone who has been touched by opioid addiction, a path and a means to move our communities forward and out of the shadow of this man-made plague.”

“We are extremely gratified by the Court’s decision holding Walgreens, the largest provider of opioids in San Francisco, liable for dispensing ‘hundreds of thousands’ of medically illegitimate opioid prescriptions without adequate due diligence and substantially contributing to the horrific opioid epidemic in San Francisco,” noted Lieff Cabraser partner Paulina do Amaral, another member of the trial team in the City’s lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors. “Along with the settlements reached with all the other defendants, Judge Breyer’s decision here in favor of Plaintiff sounds a clarion call of accountability and justice over the opioid epidemic ravaging the country.”

In his decision, Judge Breyer succinctly described Walgreens’ years of misconduct that caused so much suffering in San Francisco: “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. Tens of thousands of these prescriptions were written by doctors with suspect prescribing patterns. The evidence showed that Walgreens did not provide its pharmacists with sufficient time, staffing, or resources to perform due diligence on these prescriptions. Pharmacists experienced constant pressure to fill prescriptions as quickly as possible, and a shortage of resources to review them before dispensing. As a result of Walgreens’ fifteen-year failure to perform adequate due diligence, 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.”

These corporate practices fueled a widespread surge of opioid-related addiction and overdose in San Francisco, thereby creating an ongoing public nuisance in the region. From 2006 to 2014, San Francisco County saw 163,645,704 opioids distributed, enough for 22 pills per person per year. Between 2015 and 2020, San Francisco saw a 478% increase in opioid-related overdose deaths, and in a typical day at the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital (ZSFG) Emergency Department, approximately 25 percent of visits are opioid-related.

This trial is the fourth bellwether case in the federal opioid litigation proceeding involving more than 3,000 American cities, towns, and counties, bringing opioid manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacy chains to court for fueling the opioid epidemic. This case will serve as a test trial to help reach resolutions and seek accountability for the destruction the opioid industry caused nationwide.

The next stage of trial will determine the amount Walgreens must pay San Francisco to abate the nuisance they caused. The case is City and County of San Francisco, et al., v. Purdue Pharma L.P., et al., Case No. 3:18-cv-07591-CRB. The decision can be found here.