Oklahoma Accuses J&J of Dodging Liability for ‘Cunning’ Opioid Drug Push

By | July 16, 2019

Even after illegally promoting opioid painkillers to reap billions of dollars in profit over the past two decades, Johnson & Johnson has accepted “zero responsibility” for its central role in fueling a public-health crisis, Oklahoma’s top law-enforcement official told a trial judge.

J&J engaged in a “cunning” scheme to dupe doctors into over-prescribing addictive medications that “wrecked thousands” of families in the state, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said during closing arguments Monday. The trial in Oklahoma City is the first of more than 1,900 local U.S. government lawsuits against drug makers and distributors over the fallout from opioid abuse.

“They blame everyone else,” Hunter told Judge Thad Balkman, who is hearing the case without a jury. “The only question is whether the Oklahoma taxpayer or the kingpin” should pick up the tab for the costs of addressing the state’s epidemic, the attorney general said.

J&J disputes the state’s allegations and refuses to settle the dispute like their rivals. Larry Ottaway, a J&J lawyer, told Balkman the drugmaker is being used as a scapegoat for other companies’ missteps.

“There are no easy answers” to the state’s opioid-addiction problems, and accusing J&J of being “the head of some opioid cartel” isn’t productive, Ottaway said in his closing argument.

At the end of presentations by both sides, Balkman said he will review the evidence and announce his opinion in about a month.

Hunter claims more than 4,000 Oklahomans died over the past two decades from opioid abuse and thousands were left hooked on pills. Similar allegations against market leader Purdue Pharma LP led to a $270 million settlement before the trial began more than a month ago, while Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. agreed to pay $85 million.

Government officials across the U.S. are seeking to collect billions of dollars as compensation for their costs in dealing with opioid addiction. The outcome in Oklahoma — where J&J is facing allegations under the state’s public-nuisance law — could impact claims and settlement talks involving other states, cities and counties, who are using the same legal theory to hold the drugmaker liable.

Unfair Blame

J&J argues it’s being blamed for the bad acts of others, including Purdue and Teva. New Brunswick, New Jersey-based J&J has also fought the state’s request for as much as $17.5 billion over 30 years in reimbursement for current and future outlays to cope with the epidemic’s costs.

Hunter claims J&J is a “kingpin” of the opioid crisis because some of its former overseas units once produced and processed opium poppies used as the active-pharmaceutical ingredient in opioids. J&J officials vigorously rejected such characterizations. The company said it sold those units and that it was hardly the only one growing poppies for medical uses.

“J&J paid ’em to push pills,” Brad Beckworth, a lawyer representing the state, said of the company’s opioid-promotion strategy with doctors. “That’s what drug dealers do.”

Beckworth, the state’s lead lawyer on the case, also described J&J as “a corrupt company” that only cared about making money when it came to promoting and supplying opioids.

Oklahoma’s lawyers presented evidence showing Australian poppy cultivator Tasmanian Alkaloids sold the key ingredient for opioid medications to other manufacturers, including Purdue and Teva.

During the trial, J&J and its Janssen unit provided testimony from an expert on world-wide drug smuggling who rejected the state’s claim that the opioid promotions by the company were similar to those of illegal traffickers.

J&J’s attorney also dismissed the state’s claims the company’s sales reps were tasked with duping Oklahoma doctors into ramping up opioid prescriptions regardless of the risks and lavishly awarded for doing so.

“The state would have you believe we marshaled an army to come here to mislead doctors about risk and benefits of opioids,” Ottaway said. “Not true.”

He also asked Balkman to remember the state didn’t provide evidence from any Oklahoma doctors who could support claims that J&J or Janssen officials misled them about the addiction and overdose risks of opioids.

The case is State of Oklahoma v. Purdue Pharma LP, CJ-2017-816, Cleveland County, Oklahoma, District Court (Norman).

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