Oklahoma Takes on Big Pharma in First Major Opioid Trial

Judge Thad Balkman listens during opening arguments Tuesday in Norman, Okla., as the nation’s first state trial against drugmakers blamed for contributing to the opioid crisis began. At right is a slide from the state’s presentation shown on a monitor. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

NORMAN, Okla. (CN) – Oklahoma’s bellwether trial over the opioid crisis began Tuesday with officials accusing pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson of acting as a “drug kingpin” that killed over 4,600 Oklahomans through unintentional overdoses and created a public nuisance that cost the state billions of dollars.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter claimed during opening arguments before Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman that Johnson & Johnson, along with its competitors Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, created “the worst manmade public health crisis in our state’s history.”

He said the companies raced against each other to make a “magic drug” for profit.

“To put it bluntly, this crisis is devastating Oklahoma,” he said. “How did this happen? At the end of the day, your honor, I have a short, one word answer – greed.”

The trio “embarked on a cynical, deceitful, multibillion-dollar brainwashing campaign to establish opioid analgesics as the magic drug,” Hunter said. “Money can make people do bad things, very bad things.”

Oklahoma sued the three companies in 2017 for fraud, unjust enrichment, public nuisance and violation of state Medicaid laws, accusing them of downplaying the addiction risks of the painkiller drugs while overstating their benefits to push doctors to prescribe more opioids.

A settlement was reached with Stamford, Connecticut-based Purdue and its owners, the Sackler family, for $270 million in March.

Israel-based Teva reached a similar settlement on Sunday for $85 million – two days before the trial began. Teva steadfastly denies any responsibility in the crisis, stating it “has not contributed to the abuse of opioids in Oklahoma in any way.”  

Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals are the only remaining defendants. Oklahoma is demanding over $10 billion in damages.

The landmark bench 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.

In a surprise move, frustrated Oklahoma officials dropped all claims except for the public nuisance claim last month. Hunter said he did so to avoid the defendants’ attempts at “wasting time” trying to delay trial.

Another attorney representing the state, Bradley Beckworth with Texas-based Nix Patterson, told the court that Johnson & Johnson and Purdue were locked in a competition for control over the opioid market.

Citing lyrics from the musical “Annie Get Your Gun,” Beckworth said “anything you can do, I can do better” was the attitude the defendant had in copying Purdue’s tactics to get as many patients hooked on the drugs as possible.

The attorney said there are over 135 opioid pills available for every adult in Cleveland County, over 139,000 years of life were lost by the deaths in the crisis, and over 149,000 sales visits were made to doctors in Oklahoma between 1999 to 2005.

Beckworth displayed slides in the courtroom to show notes made by pharmaceutical sales employees on how to persuade doctors to prescribe more opioids in spite of their concerns about overdose and addiction risks.

Defense attorney Larry Ottaway, of the Oklahoma City-based Foliart Huff firm, began his opening statement just before court recessed for lunch. He said the Food and Drug Administration agreed in 2009 with his client’s assertions that opioids are rarely addictive. He also disputed claims that the drugmakers had targeted children.

Opioids were involved in over 47,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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