Pay attention to this little-noticed opioid lawsuit in Oklahoma


National News

February 15, 2019 - 4:22 PM

The Cleveland County Courthouse in Norman, Okla., is where an opioid case, Oklahoma v. Purdue Pharma, is scheduled for trial in May. Courtesy of Cleveland County, Norman, Oklahoma

WASHINGTON — In the legal battle to hold drug companies responsible for the country’s raging opioid epidemic, media attention largely has focused on a national lawsuit set for a late October trial in federal court in Cleveland, Ohio.

But it may be upstaged by a lesser-known opioid case: Oklahoma v. Purdue Pharma, scheduled for trial in May in the Cleveland County Courthouse in Norman, Okla.

The Ohio case, known as the National Prescription Opiate Litigation, is a consolidated case that includes federal lawsuits brought by more than 1,500 counties, municipalities, hospitals and others, and features a brief from the U.S. Justice Department.

But attorneys general in most states have opted to file independent lawsuits against drug companies, rather than share the stage with hundreds of other cases. In total, at least 330 opioid-related cases are pending in lower courts in at least 45 states.

Oklahoma’s case is slated to be the first to go to trial.

With similar legal concepts and evidence, the Oklahoma trial could presage many of the arguments the jury may be presented in the national case in the fall. And if the drug companies in Oklahoma offer a settlement, the proposal could precipitate a national settlement, some legal experts said.

At a minimum, the Oklahoma trial would for the first time give the press and the American public full access to evidence and arguments aimed at showing that drug companies flooded local markets with opioid painkillers for more than a decade while knowing that the pills were highly addictive.

In the case, which was filed in 2017, attorneys representing Oklahoma will present evidence and expert testimony to support the state’s claim that OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet and other prescription pain medicines that drugmakers falsely claimed were safe led to the deaths of thousands of Oklahomans.

The state also will argue that the drug companies’ “deceptive and misleading” marketing campaigns caused “a devastating public health crisis” in the state, putting “an immense financial burden on Oklahoma, its businesses, consumers, communities and citizens,” according to the original petition in the case.

In previous state and federal lawsuits, Purdue and other opioid manufacturers have noted that the drugs they produced were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and argued that they had a legitimate purpose. They also maintained that the doctors and patients who misused the pills should be held accountable for the addiction and overdoses that resulted.

Nearly 218,000 people died in the United States from overdoses related to prescription opioids between 1999 and 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the opioid addiction and overdose epidemic of the last decade has cost the nation an estimated $79 billion a year.

“The Oklahoma trial will pull the cover off the pharmaceutical companies’ fraudulent and deceptive marketing practices,” Michael Burrage, one of the state’s attorneys, said in an interview. “The case will show that it was all about the money. That’s all they cared about, was the money.”

Since the presiding judge in the Oklahoma case ruled that television cameras may be used in the courtroom, every detail of what promises to be a dramatic trial could be broadcast to the American public, potentially affecting the outcome of any future opioid trials.

“Allowing cameras in the courtroom will give Oklahomans across the state and individuals from across the country a firsthand account of the proceedings,” Republican Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter wrote in a 2018 press statement. “It will also allow individuals to see how these companies maliciously deceived the nation while creating the deadliest man-made epidemic in United States history.”

The Oklahoma lawsuit seeks to hold Purdue and three other opioid-makers, Allergan, Cephalon and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, responsible for economic damages to the state and its residents stemming from the opioid addiction and overdose crisis.

“These companies have waged a fraudulent, decade-long marketing campaign to profit from the anguish of thousands of Oklahomans,” Hunter said in a 2017 press announcement after the case was filed.