Back in July, I wrote of a Pro Publica investigation into opioid prescriptions, including those filled by Walmart’s extensive network of pharmacies. Apparently a number of their own pharmacy staff complained to Corporate about filling opioid prescriptions they felt were inappropriate. They worried about repeat scripts from certain physicians who they believed were abusing the privilege. The hope was those prescribers could be banned from using Walmart’s pharmacy.
Apparently the authorities at Corporate HQ pushed back, claiming it was not the pharmacist’s job to make such decisions. Thus opioids continued to flow from questionable physicians along with the rest. A Texas prosecutor became interested and considered criminal charges against Walmart. The giant corporation’s attorneys complained to the Trump Administration’s Department of Justice, and after review, the prosecutor was told to back off. This apparently didn’t sit well; he subsequently resigned. Criminal liability was, however, effectively off the table.
Now I see that Walmart’s legal team has filed a lawsuit to demand that a Federal judge officially dismiss any and all liability for the company when it comes to civil damages.
Walmart’s hired legal team is arguing that it was never the seller‘s responsibility to refuse to fill a prescription written by a legally authorized physician. Opioids are controlled substances, they maintain, so it was the government that should be held accountable. Since the government (including the DOJ) failed to do its job, it was unfair to blame Walmart.
The government, not surprisingly, disagrees. Walmart, they counter, should have taken action, especially in view of repeat warnings from their own staff. Notified the DEA, for instance. Because they didn’t, they bear liability for the damage done.
Apparently the damage is significant.
I’m no attorney, so my opinion bears no legal weight. I do find it easy to believe that a big retailer would place its sales revenue, current and future, above other considerations. Plenty of examples in the corporate world. Like that fast food chain that persisted in serving overheated coffee despite mounting evidence of scalded customers. They worried that lowering the temperature of their coffee would displease other customers and hurt sales.
I also find it curious that a giant national corporation with 5000 stores wouldn’t be tracking how many opioids were dispensed through their own pharmacies. In my experience, those folks at Corporate track everything that affects their revenue. Even how fast a particular product, like paper towels or cans of tomato soup, sells out at a given store and has to be restocked. Those delivery trucks are already on the move.
Unlike soup, painkillers are controlled substances. Regulated by Federal law. Did they honestly think the authorities would not at some point notice what was happening?
Maybe it was just a matter of impressive revenue seeming as if it was worth the risk. Now, given the size of awards in other civil liability cases, they’re rethinking that. Looking for ways to minimize (or perhaps avoid entirely) a big hit to the bottom line.
Wouldn’t be the first time, would it?
Big companies, like super-powerful defendants of all types, may take risks with the law based on their confidence in their ability to hire the best legal talent to defend them — and/or to use lobbyists to pressure politicians to protect their interests.
It’s a familiar strategy, if not a particularly commendable one.