'This Case Will Set A Precedent': 1st Major Opioid Trial Opens In Oklahoma
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Drug companies are facing lawsuits over their role in the nationwide opioid crisis. And tomorrow in Oklahoma, the first trial gets underway. The state is suing industry giant Johnson & Johnson over its marketing of opioids. Jackie Fortier of StateImpact Oklahoma reports.
JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: Greg lives in Guthrie, Okla., about an hour north of the courthouse where Johnson & Johnson is headed to trial. The state is trying to win money to pay for treatment for people like Greg. He worries he'll lose his job if we use his last name.
GREG: The first time I ever did use them, I had my wisdom teeth taken out. And they gave me a script for them, and I ended up taking, like, most of them at once and just kind of toughing out the pain. I enjoyed it. It felt good.
FORTIER: He says he's been addicted to opioids for 11 years. People with prescriptions sell him their pills. Sometimes, Greg binges and takes 400 milligrams of morphine at once - a huge dose. Even with health insurance, his wife, Judy, says they can't find integrated treatment for both his addiction and his bipolar disorder. It's either one or the other.
JUDY: They don't give you, like, a treatment plan for both, right?
JUDY: So they just say, oh, well, here, you can talk to this person.
GREG: Right, yeah.
JUDY: I mean, they don't recognize like - it's, like, self-medicating.
FORTIER: Judy is afraid if he doesn't get the treatment he needs, he may overdose. Federal health officials found that prescription in street opioids were involved in more than 47,000 overdose deaths in 2017. Nora Freeman Engstrom is a professor at Stanford Law School.
NORA FREEMAN ENGSTROM: It's the equivalent roughly of two 747 aircraft crashing every week.
FORTIER: A majority of states and more than 1,600 local and tribal governments are suing drugmakers and distributors. They're trying to recoup billions of dollars spent on addressing the fallout tied to opioid addiction. Engstrom says the Oklahoma case will be the first in this wave of litigation.
ENGSTROM: So we'll all be seeing what evidence is available, what evidence isn't available and just how convincing that evidence is.
FORTIER: Oklahoma filed this lawsuit in 2017 against drug giants Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson and generic drug-maker Teva Pharmaceuticals. In March, Purdue Pharma, without accepting blame, settled with the state for $270 million. Soon after, state attorney general Mike Hunter dropped all but one of the civil claims, including fraud, against the remaining defendants.
MIKE HUNTER: We have looked at literally millions of documents. We've taken hundreds of depositions.
FORTIER: And with just two days to go before a very public televised trial, Teva Pharmaceuticals announced an $85 million settlement with the state. Teva said it has not contributed to the abuse of opioids in Oklahoma in any way. That leaves Johnson & Johnson as the only opioid manufacturer headed to trial in Oklahoma. And the entire case rests on a claim of public nuisance.
RICHARD AUSNESS: It's sexy, you know? Public nuisance makes it sound like the defendants are really bad.
FORTIER: Richard Ausness is a law professor at the University of Kentucky. He says the Oklahoma attorney general's decision to not join with a larger consolidated case could mean a quicker resolution for the state or no money at all.
AUSNESS: And particularly when we're talking about AGs who are politicians who want to be able to tell the people, gee, this is what I've done for you, they're not interested in waiting two or three years. They want it now. So, of course, the risk of that is you may lose.
FORTIER: If Oklahoma loses, the state may foot a decades-long and multimillion-dollar bill for addiction treatment. And a defeat could signal to others that pursuing opioid manufacturers in court comes with a financial risk. For NPR News, I'm Jackie Fortier in Norman, Okla.
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