'The exposure is a lot of money:' Closely watched opioid trial begins in SF

Two opioid manufacturers, a distributor and pharmacy giant Walgreens flooded San Francisco’s streets with prescription drugs of the past two decades and helped drive demand for the illicit fentanyl market that’s caused a city-wide overdose crisis, attorneys for the city said Monday.

The stark portrait came during opening statements in the federal civil trial against drug manufacturers Allergan and Teva, drug distributor Anda, and Walgreens.

"We need to make sure their held accountable for the impact to San Francisco and California," city attorney David Chiu said outside federal court ahead of the trial. "We also want to make sure San Francisco recoups at least some of our losses that were resulting from the incredible profits that were gained from corporate defendants."

The case stands as one of a handful of so-called bellwether cases that could set the bar for liability in thousands of similar cases around the country playing out in federal court.

"I think it’s fair to say here that the exposure is a lot of money," law professor Scott Dodson at UC Hastings told KTVU. "The wheels of justice turn slowly, but they are turning. I think that we’re moving toward a global resolution of all of these cases in the much nearer term now."

Last week, Chiu announced that Endo pharmaceuticals had settled its case with the city for $10 million, allowing it to be removed from the litigation that went to trail more than three years after it was filed. 

In their opening, attorneys for the city argued the defendants went after a new market of customers beginning in the 1990s.

They played videos from the drug makers themselves, including one from Endo’s CEO saying "the window was really open as the whole landscape of pain management was changing."

That led to an influx of pills into the city. Chiu said that from 2006 to 2014, San Francisco saw 163,645,704 pills distributed -- enough for 22 pills per person per year.

It was all helped along by the drug companies’ aggressive sales force, which lied to doctors and pharmacists, saying opioids were not addictive, he said. 

And companies like Walgreens filled countless suspicious prescriptions without a second thought, the city attorney said. 

"The claims about the safety and efficacy of prescription opioids were false," said Richard Heinmann, who is working alongside San Francisco with law firm Lieff Babraser, Heimann & Bernstein. "Prescription opioids are as addictive as heroin."

It all allegedly helped create a demand that spilled over into places like the tenderloin where illicit drugs like fentanyl have spurred an overdose crisis. 

Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at evan.sernoffsky@fox.com and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky