Judge to Weigh Closely Watched Opioid Case -- WSJ

Date : 07/16/2019 @ 8:02AM
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Judge to Weigh Closely Watched Opioid Case -- WSJ

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Closing arguments came Monday in the Oklahoma suit against Johnson & Johnson

By Sara Randazzo 

This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (July 16, 2019).

Attorneys for the state of Oklahoma urged a judge Monday to hold Johnson & Johnson responsible for the state's opioid epidemic and make the company pay more than $17 billion.

"We are in a state of crisis," Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said during closing arguments in the first trial in the nation seeking to hold the pharmaceutical industry accountable for widespread opioid addiction and overdoses. The attorney general said Johnson & Johnson "blamed everyone, everyone except themselves for causing this crisis."

Over a seven-week trial, attorneys for Oklahoma presented evidence and witnesses they say prove Johnson & Johnson was the kingpin of the state's prescription opioid supply.

Oklahoma has proposed a more than $17.5 billion, 30-year plan to abate the costs of opioid addiction that it says Johnson & Johnson should fund. The plan includes money for addiction treatment, education of the public and medical community, and overdose prevention programs. The state says 6,100 Oklahomans died from prescription-drug overdoses between 2000 and 2017.

Johnson & Johnson has pushed back against allegations that it marketed its opioid drugs too broadly and played down addiction risks. The pharmaceutical and consumer products giant says it is being scapegoated as the only company willing to take the claims to trial, and argues its marketing of drugs was legally protected speech and regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"These drugs help patients function," Larry Ottaway, an Oklahoma-based attorney representing Johnson & Johnson, said during closings, according to a broadcast of the proceedings on Courtroom View Network.

Naming a victor in the case now falls to Oklahoma state court Judge Thad Balkman, who is weighing the evidence in lieu of a jury. The outcome is being closely watched in light of some 2,000 similar lawsuits brought against drugmakers and distributors by states and local municipalities.

The trial, which streamed live on local media, in many ways became a showcase for the societal cost of all opioid abuse and addiction, not just actions allegedly tied to Johnson & Johnson-branded drugs.

The judge heard emotional testimony from the father of a college football player who overdosed from opioids, a youth pastor who detailed a fall into addiction that temporarily derailed his life, and a foster mom who recounted the toll of caring for children born dependent on opioids. None of those witnesses mentioned the impact of Johnson & Johnson drugs specifically.

Brad Beckworth, a Texas attorney hired to represent Oklahoma, said during closing arguments the case "is about all the opioids," because Johnson & Johnson contributed to broad pro-opioid marketing campaigns. Johnson & Johnson also for many years owned two businesses that supplied the narcotic raw materials and active pharmaceutical ingredients for other companies' opioid painkillers, which Oklahoma says gave them an incentive to make the drugs more popular.

"If you oversupply opioids, you get death," Mr. Beckworth said in court Monday.

Mr. Ottaway countered that painkillers serve a medical need and that doctors know the risks. "This problem of untreated chronic pain afflicts people here in Oklahoma," he said.

Sales practices figured heavily into parts of the trial, including testimony on Johnson & Johnson sales representatives visiting doctors who later faced criminal action for misprescribing opioids. The company countered that the state knew about the problem doctors long before their representatives visited them.

Johnson & Johnson's two primary opioid painkillers are Duragesic, a fentanyl patch, and a tapentadol pill called Nucynta that it sold in 2015. The state says company representatives pitched Oklahoma doctors more than 140,000 times between 2000 and 2011. The state wheeled 35 boxes of call notes from Johnson & Johnson sales representatives into court early on in the trial for effect.

Johnson & Johnson became the lone defendant in the trial after two other drug companies settled. Purdue Pharma LP agreed to pay $270 million to resolve the claims, much of that to fund a national addiction research and treatment center, and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. contributed another $85 million. Neither company admitted wrongdoing.

"We didn't run from this case," Mr. Ottaway said Monday, adding that the company came to defend itself because it believes it is innocent.

OxyContin-maker Purdue continued to be a presence in court. The state repeatedly cited, for instance, that Johnson & Johnson's opioid ingredient supply businesses benefited Purdue.

The entire case rests on Oklahoma's allegation that Johnson & Johnson created a public nuisance in the state through its aggressive marketing of prescription opioids. The company says the state is improperly invoking public nuisance law, typically used in property disputes. It pointed to the irony of Mr. Hunter, the attorney general, recently signing on to a brief arguing against the use of public nuisance law in climate-change lawsuits filed against the oil industry. Mr. Hunter called the comparison shameful during closing arguments and said public nuisance is correctly being used in this case.

Johnson & Johnson's witnesses included former and current employees and doctors who testified that the company's marketing and sales practices were appropriate and that the pharmaceutical industry isn't responsible for opioid misuse.

Write to Sara Randazzo at sara.randazzo@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 16, 2019 02:47 ET (06:47 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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