NORMAN, Okla. (CN) - Oklahoma accused Johnson & Johnson of "blaming everyone except themselves" during closing arguments Monday in the state's $17.5 billion bellwether opioid crisis trial, saying the drugmaker used a "cunning, cynical and deceitful scheme" to push the addictive painkillers on the public.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter compared the pharmaceutical giant to a drug cartel "kingpin" that has caused a "state of crisis" in Oklahoma.
"There is a simple reason for this crisis - greed," Hunter said. "The greed of the pharmaceutical companies cause the crisis."
Another attorney representing the state, Brad Beckworth with Nix Patterson, said Johnson & Johnson "pushed pills" like "drug dealers." The state spent the bulk of the seven-week trial focusing on high-pressure sales tactics the drugmaker's staff allegedly used to repeatedly push doctors to prescribe the drugs while downplaying their addiction risks.
Oklahoma sued Johnson & Johnson, subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma in 2017 on claims of 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. Hunter blames the drugmakers for 4,600 Oklahoman deaths from accidental prescription opioid overdoses between 2007 and 2017.
Purdue and its owners - the Sackler family - 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 pointed to defense testimony last week by Oklahoma City anesthesiologist Dr. Terrell Phillips, who denied he was pressured to push opioids by Janssen's sales representatives. Phillips testified that insurers and workers’ compensation laws reimburse doctors for only “reasonable and necessary” treatment that excludes physical therapy, counseling, injections and surgery. He said that leaves doctors "handcuffed" with no choice but to prescribe opioids over the excluded treatment options.
Hunter disagreed, stating the defendants' marketing scheme led to "utter confusion" regarding the addiction risks of the prescription painkillers. He is asking for up to $17.5 billion in damages spread over 30 years for public programs to treat the epidemic.
The closely watched 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.
Defense attorney Larry Ottaway, with Foliart Huff in Oklahoma City, pushed back on the claims during his closing arguments Monday, insisting Johnson & Johnson is being blamed for the mistakes of other drugmakers due to it being the only defendant willing to go to trial.
He said Johnson & Johnson "did not run from this case" and should not be punished because of it. He insisted there are no "easy answers" in the opioid crisis.
"The state will have you believe we marshaled an army to come here to mislead doctors about the risk and benefits of opioids," Ottaway said. "That is not true."
Ottaway reiterated that the company's opioid painkillers "help patients function" and that doctors were well aware of the risks when prescribing the drugs to patients.
Johnson & Johnson has built its defense on insisting the state's use of a public nuisance claim is invalid as the charge is intended to be used for property disputes. It argued that if the state's claim succeeds, there is nothing stopping a similar lawsuit against fast food restaurants for the obesity epidemic.
Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman is expected to take a full month before issuing his ruling in lieu of a jury.
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