Cobb County to serve as test case for national pharmacies being tried for opioid crisis

FILE - Cobb County will play venue for a multi-jurisdictional trial next year involving hundreds of government organizations suing opioid manufacturers, retailers and pharmaceutical companies for their alleged role in the opioid epidemic. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

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FILE - Cobb County will play venue for a multi-jurisdictional trial next year involving hundreds of government organizations suing opioid manufacturers, retailers and pharmaceutical companies for their alleged role in the opioid epidemic. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to reflect Georgia was awarded a $16.8 million opioid settlement from McKinsey & Company.

Cobb County was a posterchild of Georgia’s opioid addiction crisis for years, saddled at one point with the state’s highest number of overdose deaths.

Next year, Cobb will be among five jurisdictions nationally to host a showdown between major retailers who sold the prescription drugs and communities ravaged by the opioid epidemic.

Cobb County is among hundreds of local and state governments across the nation that are suing pharmacy chains and opioid manufacturers for their alleged role in the crisis. Defendants in the Cobb County cases are popular pharmacy chains CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Kroger, Publix and Rite Aid.

Cobb was chosen for one of five so-called “bellwether trials,” county spokesman Ross Cavitt said.

Bellwether trials are sample trials typically used in cases involving a large number of plaintiffs who are arguing the same issue. They serve as a gauge to let litigants know how strong their respective cases are. Cavitt said it’s part of the process before potentially moving toward any settlements.

The Georgia Attorney General’s office filed a lawsuit against opioid distributors and manufacturers. The suit accuses opioid makers of conspiring to deceive doctors, regulators and patients about the addictive nature of their drugs. And it claims the epidemic burdened the state with increased expenses for addiction treatment, policing, jails and foster care.

Georgia was awarded $16.8 million as part of a $573 million settlement with McKinsey & Company, a consulting firm that did marketing for opioid manufacturers. The settlement involved 47 states and the District of Columbia, Attorney General Chris Carr announced Feb. 4.

A spokeswoman for Georgia Attorney General’s office confirmed Thursday that the state prosecutor’s lawsuit against other opioid manufacturers and distributors continues in Gwinnett County Superior Court.

Cobb County is seeking damages for the epidemic’s impact on the public health infrastructure, first responders, law enforcement and other taxpayer expenses tied to the opioid crisis. The county has yet to tabulate its financial toll, but that figure will be established during next year’s trial or any subsequent settlement negotiation, according to Cavitt.

County officials said the bellwether trial could possibly end with a verdict for damages to be paid out to Cobb County. It could also lead to settlement negotiations that result in a pay out for the county.

Multidistrict litigation against opioid drug manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson and Allergen remains in global settlement talks, according to Cavitt.

The trial date and presiding judge for Cobb’s bellwether trial have yet to be selected. While Cobb County is the plaintiff in the case, Cavitt said the trial will be held at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building in downtown Atlanta.

If the case proceeds to a jury trial, jurors could be selected from the Atlanta division of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, which includes Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, Newton and Rockdale counties.

Four other states will host similar bellwether trials against the major pharmacy chains that’s expected to begin sometime in 2022. Besides Georgia, cases involving pharmacies will be held in Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, and New Mexico.

“The opportunity to bring our case to trial comes with great responsibility,” Cobb County Commission chairwoman Lisa Cupid said. “We feel a deep sense of obligation to use this process to give voice to the experiences and ongoing needs of our community members on the front lines of the opioid epidemic, including first responders, medical professionals, individuals in recovery, and families impacted by the crisis. We look forward to presenting our case and will be ready when that day comes.”

Former Cobb commissioner Bob Ott said the county was recruited to join the opioid lawsuit in 2018. The complaint was originally filed in federal court in the Northern District of Georgia, then transferred to Ohio to become part of the larger multidistrict lawsuit filed by cities and counties throughout the U.S.

Georgia as a whole saw a rapid spike in opioid overdoses after 2010 that was driven by an increasing misuse of opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone. Plaintiffs in the multidistrict litigation allege opioid manufacturers failed to warn customers about the long-term risks of using the drugs and distributors didn’t adequately monitor prescriptions.

Cobb County became emblematic of the statewide epidemic. It led the state in overall drug overdose deaths in 2017 with 146 deaths. The following year, Cobb ranked second among Georgia counties with 112 overdose deaths, according to Cobb & Douglas Public Health.

Cobb County resident Missy Owen and her husband Michael founded the Davis Direction Foundation in 2014 to combat opioid addiction after her son, Davis, died from an opioid overdose.

Missy Owen said the fight to prove pharmacy chains’ liability in the opioid epidemic could be the most challenging of all the multidistrict cases.

“But if nothing else it will highlight the immense toll the opioid crisis has left in Cobb County, metro Atlanta, and elsewhere,” she said. “Shining more light on the situation will hopefully help educate people and help lead us to a sustainable solution.”

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Cobb County became emblematic of the statewide epidemic. It led the state in overall drug overdose deaths in 2017 with 146 deaths.

The following year, Cobb ranked second among Georgia counties with 112 overdose deaths, according to Cobb & Douglas Public Health.

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