NORMAN, Okla. (CN) – The judge overseeing Oklahoma’s $17.5 billion opioid crisis lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson declined Monday to toss the bellwether trial on what Sooner State prosecutors called “the worst manmade public health crisis in our state’s history.”
Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman rejected Johnson & Johnson and subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceutical’s motion for a direct verdict filed last week.
“I have determined there is sufficient evidence for the state to proceed with its case,” he said.
During court proceedings Monday, defense attorneys argued the state public nuisance law usually pertains to property disputes. Attorney Stephen Brody said that if it is allowed to pertain to a public health crisis, there is no reason why fast food companies cannot be sued on similar grounds.
“There is scientific literature saying fast food, high calorie foods and high fat foods – the fact that Americans very likely eat more fast food than people in other countries is something that can explain the obesity epidemic,” Brody told the judge. “But does that mean that a fast food manufacturer, like McDonald’s or Sonic, is responsible for what the state would say here is an abatement?”
Citing the state’s demand for $17.5 billion to fund several years of opioid treatment programs, Brody argued the public nuisance law does not allow that.
“What are the harms associated with a [fast food] epidemic?” he asked. “To fund treatment for high cholesterol, to fund diabetes treatment, to take over Medicaid reimbursement for treatment of heart attacks? To fund exercise programs in schools? Absolutely not.”
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter applauded the judge’s ruling, calling the dismissal motion “the latest attempt to cut and run from the crisis” Johnson & Johnson created.
“Our case has revealed how corporate greed got in the way of responsible practices by Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries,” he said in a statement. “Our evidence has shown how the company perpetuated the epidemic through the targeting of high prescribing doctors, repeatedly ignoring warnings to clean up its act by the federal government and its own scientific advisers and the myriad of other deceitful practices on its way to selling more highly addictive drugs to a vulnerable population.”
Now in its seventh week, the bellwether trial is the first of approximately 2,000 cases filed in federal and state courts nationwide against drugmakers over their role in the opioid epidemic. Over 1,400 of the federal cases have been consolidated in Ohio federal court, where the judge overseeing it has been urging the parties to reach settlements with state and local government plaintiffs.
Oklahoma sued Johnson & Johnson, Janssen, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma in 2017 for fraud, unjust enrichment, public nuisance and violation of state Medicaid laws for allegedly pushing doctors to prescribe opioid painkillers while downplaying the addiction risks and overstating their benefits.
Purdue settled in March for $270 million. Israel-based Teva reached a similar settlement in May for $85 million – two days before the trial began.
Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary are the only remaining defendants. In the weeks before trial, the state dropped all claims except its public nuisance claim to prevent further delays caused by defense appeals.
Hunter said during opening arguments that the drugmakers have “created the worst manmade public health crisis in our state’s history.”
The rejection of the defense motion means Johnson & Johnson will continue call its witnesses, which is expected to conclude next week. The judge is expected to deliver his verdict in August.
Jason Fanary, a senior Janssen sales manager, denied under oath last week accusations that salesmen misled doctors to push them to prescribe more opioids and insisted they provide “fair and balanced” drug information.
The testimony was a direct rebuttal to the state’s star witness Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University. Kolodny testified last month that he changed his mind on prescription opioids when he read a study in the 2000s that concluded an increase in opioid prescriptions resulted in more accidental overdose deaths.
“There were so many doctors who recognized this practice was harming patients,” he said. “It makes no sense to prescribe a highly addictive drug for common and everyday pain, but it was hard to speak out against it because it had become accepted.”
Kolodny said he has been attacked and vilified for his role in speaking against the opioid makers. He said this trial and others like it are needed to expose the alleged “lies” drugmakers have told the public about opioids.
Opioids were involved in over 47,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.