Oklahoma Pares Opioid Epidemic Suit Against Big Pharma

OxyContin pills arranged for a 2013 photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. Oklahoma’s attorney general announced a settlement on March 26, 2019, with Purdue Pharma, one of the drug manufacturers named in a state lawsuit that accuses them of fueling the opioid epidemic. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

NORMAN, Okla. (CN) – In a surprise move, frustrated Oklahoma officials dropped all claims except for a public nuisance claim against opioid manufacturers Thursday in order to end what they say are stall tactics before the bellwether case goes to trial next month.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter called the dismissal of five of the six claims necessary since the defendants “are wasting time that could be spent preparing for trial” that is set to begin on May 28. He said Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman and the Oklahoma Supreme Court have “repeatedly denied requests to push the trial back multiple times” by the defendants.

The four-page notice of voluntary dismissal without prejudice drops claims of fraud, unjust enrichment and violations of state Medicaid laws.

“The defendants in this case have tried in every way imaginable to derail our trial date,” Hunter said in a written statement. “Moving forward with the state’s public nuisance claim moots most of the issues raised by the defendants in discovery, allowing the parties and the judge to focus on preparing for this trial, set to begin in less than eight weeks.”

Oklahoma sued several opioid makers in 2017 in state court, including OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Janssen and Teva, claiming they caused the opioid addition epidemic by downplaying the risks of using their painkillers while overstating their benefits.

Defense attorney Sabrina Strong with O’Melveny Myers in Los Angeles said she is “pleased” with Hunter’s decision because it emphasizes the claims’ “lack of merit.”

“The evidence presented at trial will show that Janssen’s actions in the marketing and promotion of its important, FDA-approved prescription pain medications were appropriate and responsible.” she said in a written statement. “We will continue to defend against the remaining baseless and unsubstantiated allegations.”

Hunter said the decision was made after a Thursday hearing where the opioid makers tied up the court and prosecutors with a “blizzard” of pretrial motions.

“The team and I remain laser-focused on the goal we set since filing this lawsuit: holding those responsible for creating this crisis accountable and bring an end to the opioid epidemic in Oklahoma,” he said.

The motion comes one week after Purdue and its owners in the Sackler family announced a $270 million settlement with Oklahoma to drop it from the case. Purdue agreed to no longer promote opioids in the state or hire sales representatives to push the products to Oklahoma doctors. The Sackler family themselves will contribute $75 million over five years towards the National Center for Addiction Studies and Treatment at Oklahoma State University. Purdue will also pay $60 million to cover the state’s legal costs.

The trial will be the first of approximately 2,000 cases filed in federal and state courts nationwide against drugmakers over their role in the epidemic. Over 1,400 of the federal cases have been consolidated in Cleveland federal court, where the judge overseeing it has urged both sides to reach settlements with state and local governments.

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