First Major Trial in Opioid Crisis to Start in Oklahoma

May 27, 2019 Updated: May 28, 2019

The first big trial to test whether states can sue drug makers over the damage wrought by the opioid crisis is set to kick off in Oklahoma on May 28.

Pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson (J&J) will defend against claims by Oklahoma state prosecutors, who allege the corporation helped fuel a deadly opioid epidemic in the state.

Prosecutors say J&J marketed its opioid products for a broad range of pain issues, while dismissing concerns about drug addiction.

Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. and Purdue Pharma LP have already settled claims in the same lawsuit and paid $355 million, without admitting wrongdoing.

Teva agreed to pay an $85 million settlement on May 26, two days before the start of the trial. Teva, the world’s largest generic drugmaker, said the settlement “does not establish any wrongdoing on the part of the company” and it denied contributing to opioid abuse in Oklahoma. The state resolved its claims against Purdue Pharma in March for $270 million.

Claims against Teva focused on the branded opioid products Actiq and Fentora, as well as generic painkillers it produced.

In a statement, Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., a J&J subsidiary, said it had acted responsibly and was ready for trial. It said it disagreed with what it called Oklahoma’s “overly expansive theories” of public nuisance law and said they shouldn’t apply in this situation.

“At the same time, as with all litigation, if an appropriate resolution is possible that avoids the expense and uncertainty of a trial, we are always open to that option,” the company said in a statement.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter has alleged that J&J and Teva, along with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, carried out deceptive marketing campaigns that downplayed opioids’ addictive risks while overstating their benefits.

The state also alleges the companies’ actions created an oversupply of painkillers, a public nuisance that will cost $12.7 billion to $17.5 billion to remedy.

The Oklahoma case is being closely watched by plaintiffs in other opioid cases, particularly some 1,850 mostly municipal and state governments that have sued the same drugmakers in the federal court in Ohio.

“Teva is pleased to put the Oklahoma case behind it and remains prepared to vigorously defend claims against the company, including the upcoming federal court trial in Cleveland, where the majority of the cases are pending,” the company stated.

Hunter’s office said in a statement that the money would be used to address the opioid crisis in Oklahoma and that the J&J case is still scheduled to go to trial on May 28 before Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman.

“Nearly all Oklahomans have been negatively impacted by this deadly crisis and we look forward to Tuesday, where we will prove our case against Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries,” Hunter said in a statement.

In 2017, opioid drug overdoses led to 47,600 deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Balkman, who is presiding in the case, is a former Republican state legislator appointed to the bench by then-Gov. Mary Fallin in 2013. Balkman, not a jury, will decide the case. He is allowing cameras in the courtroom, which is a rarity in Oklahoma.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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