Should J&J owe billions for Oklahoma’s opioid crisis? We’ll find out Monday

By | August 24, 2019

Opioid drugmakers face thousands of lawsuits around the country, a mountain of them grouped in Cleveland’s federal court. But right now, it’s a Monday decision—in the first opioid case to make it to trial nationally—that has market watchers bracing for news.

Judge Thad Balkman in Oklahoma’s Cleveland County is set to rule Monday on the state’s lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson. The state originally sued J&J, Teva and Purdue Pharma, but the latter two companies settled as the case approached trial. 

And in more evidence of how closely watched this trial has been, the court hasn’t just announced up front that the ruling is coming. It’s specifying a time. Judge Balkman is set to read his decision at 3 p.m. Central time, AP reports. The trial started in late May and lasted about 6 weeks. 

Free Daily Newsletter

Like this story? Subscribe to FiercePharma!

Biopharma is a fast-growing world where big ideas come along daily. Our subscribers rely on FiercePharma as their must-read source for the latest news, analysis and data on drugs and the companies that make them. Sign up today to get pharma news and updates delivered to your inbox and read on the go.

Oklahoma in 2017 sued J&J, Purdue and Teva, claiming their opioid marketing created a crisis that violated the state’s public nuisance law—and will cost billions to clean up.

J&J sees things very differently, of course. “Not once did the state identify a single Oklahoma doctor who was misled by a single Janssen statement, nor did it prove that Janssen misleadingly marketed opioids or caused any harm in Oklahoma,” J&J attorney John Sparks said in a statement sent to FiercePharma.

But the state’s claims go beyond J&J’s doctor interactions. At trial, Oklahoma prosecutors presented evidence that J&J scientists created a mutant poppy strain in 1994 that enabled the company to produce mass quantities of opioids.

Then, the company signed a long-term supply agreement with Purdue to provide oxycodone, prosecutors said. For years, the company supplied more than 60% of opioid active ingredients in the U.S., according to the state.

J&J further conducted a “decade and a half long” unbranded marketing campaign to pitch opioid drugs as safe for everyday pain, according to the state. The company also used “front groups” to promote opioids for treating pain, the state says. At trial, the state’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Commissioner Terri White said it would cost more than $ 17 billion to fix Oklahoma’s opioid abuse problem. 

RELATED: J&J called ‘kingpin’ of Oklahoma opioid epidemic. Will a judge agree? 

In all, Johnson & Johnson was the “kingpin behind the opioid crisis that has caused the deaths of thousands of Oklahomans and created a generation of people addicted to opioids in our state,” Oklahoma attorney general Mike Hunter said in a statement.

For J&J, the allegations that it served as a “kingpin” run contrary to market statistics. The company said its operations were heavily regulated by the Drug Enforcement Agency, that it held a “miniscule fraction” of Oklahoma’s opioid prescription market, and that its products were “never widely diverted.”

Besides, J&J lawyers said, Oklahoma’s effort to apply its public nuisance law in this case is an overreach. 

“The state’s attempt to resolve this tremendously complex social problem with an unprecedented expansion of public nuisance law is misguided and legally unsustainable,” Sparks said.

Sparks further warned the proposed application of the nuisance law—which has been used for a century to resolve very different disputes, such as an overgrown hedge—threatens all businesses operating in the state. 

Overall, there’s a reason why J&J chose not to settle, the company’s lawyers say. J&J attorney Larry Ottaway said at trial that “when you’re right you fight,” as quoted by Legal Newsline.

While Monday’s decision will spur market watchers to draw conclusions about the pharma industry’s larger opioid issue, J&J lawyers believe it won’t affect other cases. Oklahoma’s suit is playing out in state court and the state brought unique claims.

RELATED: Endo strikes $ 10M opioid settlement with just 2 Ohio counties, and Allergan may not be far behind

Oklahoma’s lawsuit against the drugmakers was the first to make it to trial, and the legal fight is just heating up for many companies. As drugmakers prepare for an autumn trial in Cleveland, Endo and Allergan this week inked $ 11 million and $ 5 million deals with two Ohio counties that are set to air their claims in court. More than 2,000 lawsuits from various entities are grouped up in Cleveland’s federal court, and analysts have predicted billions in potential liability for various companies. 

Before the Oklahoma case reached trial, Purdue inked a $ 270 million settlement and Teva agreed to fork over $ 85 million to resolve the state’s claims. 

FiercePharma: Pharma