By Sara Randazzo 

Four drugmakers are slated to go on trial Monday in California over claims they fed the opioid crisis, in a proceeding that could help finalize multibillion-dollar settlements between state and local governments and pharmaceutical companies.

The case is just the second to go to trial out of thousands of similar lawsuits accusing the drug industry of fueling an opioid epidemic that has killed nearly 500,000 people since 1999, according to federal data.

In the trial set to begin Monday fully by videoconference, four California communities allege that Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceutical Ltd., Allergan and Endo International PLC ran misleading marketing campaigns that played down the risks of opioid addiction to boost sales of powerful prescription painkillers.

"So many families have been affected, so many lives have ended or been completely devastated," said Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams, whose county will be pursuing its claims at trial alongside those of Los Angeles and Orange counties and the city of Oakland. "Now the question is, how is there a measure of accountability for these manufacturers?"

The concept of legally pinning blame for the opioid crisis on the pharmaceutical industry was a novelty when the case going to trial was filed in May 2014. Since then, nearly every state and more than 3,000 counties, Native American tribes, hospitals and others have sued companies up and down the drug supply chain.

The companies are expected to argue at trial that they marketed their drugs responsibly with regulatory oversight and that each had a small fraction of the pill market in the California communities. A Teva spokeswoman said the company will vigorously defend itself against the claims but is also ready to settle the opioid litigation nationally. J&J said it will challenge the claims and that it worked with regulators to provide appropriate information on the risks and benefits of its prescription opioids. AbbVie Inc., which acquired Allergan in 2020, and Endo declined to comment.

Only one other opioid case has gone to trial, resulting in a $465 million judgment against Johnson & Johnson in Oklahoma in 2019. The company is appealing. Several trials slated to take place last year were delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic but are once again approaching.

The California trial, along with trials expected to start in West Virginia federal court in May and New York state court in June, could spur drugmakers and distributors to finalize settlements to end the lawsuits nationwide.

J&J, along with the three largest drug distributors in the country, McKesson Corp., AmerisourceBergen Corp. and Cardinal Health Inc., have offered to pay a collective $26 billion to resolve their piece of the litigation. Talks between the companies and states have been under way since late 2019 but have been delayed by the pandemic as well as details around attorneys' fees and how to account for communities that opt out of the deal.

Israel-based Teva also made a proposal in 2019 to resolve the cases, offering to donate a decade's worth of opioid-addiction treatment drugs along with a cash payment of $250 million.

OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP, one of the original targets of the California case and the broader opioid litigation, filed for bankruptcy in 2019 to resolve the liabilities and is currently negotiating a $10 billion payment plan with creditors.

The first phase of the trial, expected to last for months, would determine if the companies are liable. If Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson decides that they are, the counties next would argue that they deserve billions of dollars in penalties and money to help abate the impacts of opioid addiction.

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

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 18, 2021 11:14 ET (15:14 GMT)

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