Oklahoma judge denies motion to end case against drugmaker

Posted on Monday, July 8th, 2019 By Sean Murphy, Associated Press

Mike Hunter
In this May 29, 2019 file photo, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter watches a video deposition in Norman, Okla., during Oklahoma's trial against drugmakers blamed for contributing to the opioid crisis. Hunter has secured about $355 million from two groups of defendant drug makers in the state's lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, and he's trying to make the case in court that even more money should come Oklahoma's way. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — An Oklahoma judge decided Monday the state's ongoing opioid drug lawsuit against consumer products giant Johnson & Johnson can move forward, rejecting the company's argument that the state failed to prove its public-nuisance claim.

District Judge Thad Balkman denied Johnson & Johnson lawyers' motion asking him to end the case mid-trial and rule in favor of the New Brunswick, New Jersey-based company and its subsidiaries, including Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc. The defendants filed the motion last week after the state rested its case. The trial began May 28.

Company attorneys had argued the state's case is an inappropriate use of a public-nuisance claim , typically reserved for disputes over property such as an unruly saloon or a smelly livestock operation that bothers neighbors.

"There is no support in Oklahoma law for the state's public-nuisance theory," Johnson & Johnson attorney Steve Brody said in court, likening the state's case to forcing fast-food restaurants to pay for anti-obesity programs.

Oklahoma argues the company helped fuel the state's opioid crisis with an aggressive marketing campaign that overstated the drug's effectiveness and understated the addiction risk. The state has proposed a $17.5 billion abatement plan to address the problem over the next 30 years, a figure that attorneys for Johnson & Johnson say is wildly inflated.

"We don't have to show they're the cause. We have to show they're a cause. And we did it," said Brad Beckworth, an attorney for Oklahoma.

Before the start of the trial, Oklahoma reached a $270 million settlement with Oxycontin-maker Purdue Pharma and an $85 million deal with Israeli-owned Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter described the judge's ruling Monday as a victory for the state and for victims of the opioid epidemic.

"The motion, filed by the company last week, was the latest attempt to cut and run from the crisis it created," Hunter said in a statement. "Our case has revealed how corporate greed got in the way of responsible practices by Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries."

John Sparks, a local attorney for Johnson & Johnson, said the company recognizes the toll the opioid crisis has taken on states across the country and is committed to working on measures to address it. But, Sparks added, it's unrealistic to have a single company pay for huge government programs to abate the crisis.

"We will continue to present our case and believe the evidence shows Janssen did everything a responsible manufacturer of prescription opioid medicines should do," Sparks said in a statement. "The state's over-reaching interpretation of the statute is unsustainable and will force the state into uncharted legal waters long after this case is decided."

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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