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Opioid manufacturers turn to state's top court in effort to delay trial

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In this Aug. 17, 2018 file photo, family and friends who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and opioid overdoses protest outside Purdue Pharma headquarters in Stamford, Conn. Purdue is among the drug companies being sued by Oklahoma. [AP PHOTO]
In this Aug. 17, 2018 file photo, family and friends who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and opioid overdoses protest outside Purdue Pharma headquarters in Stamford, Conn. Purdue is among the drug companies being sued by Oklahoma. [AP PHOTO]

Complaining that they are at risk of "trial by ambush," a group of 13 opioid manufacturers filed documents with the Oklahoma Supreme Court on Monday seeking to delay the May 28 start date for their Cleveland County District Court trial.

A hearing before a Supreme Court referee is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday.

Purdue Pharma and the other drug companies are appealing Friday's decision by District Judge Thad Balkman not to postpone the trial.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter is suing the drug companies for fraud, alleging that they engaged in an elaborate false marketing campaign that caused an opioid epidemic and led to thousands of overdose deaths and addictions. Hunter has accused the companies of understating the addictive risks of the painkilling drugs while overstating their therapeutic benefits.

Attorneys for the drug companies asked for a 100-day delay in the trial's start date, accusing the state of being behind schedule in turning over documents. Among other things, they say they need more time to review 1.6 million pages of documents that the state's attorneys didn't turn over to them until Feb. 21. They also argue they need more time for pretrial hearings and procedures.

"It is trial by ambush, and it should not be allowed, as a matter of both procedural fairness and due process," the drug companies' attorneys said in a Supreme Court filing.

The state's attorneys have opposed efforts to delay the trial, citing ongoing harm to thousands of Oklahomans from opioid addictions and overdose deaths.

"Time is not on our side," Hunter told Judge Balkman on Friday.

The Supreme Court referee is scheduled to hear arguments Wednesday on whether evidence gathering deadlines should be pushed back in the Cleveland County case. The referee also will hear arguments about whether the Supreme Court should expedite the process for determining whether to grant a delay in the trial.

The state has not yet said the amount of financial damages it will seek from the pharmaceutical companies, but the drug companies have described the lawsuit as the "largest civil case in Oklahoma history" and told the Supreme Court that they expect the state to ask for "more than $20 billion."

They said they expect the trial will last between two and three months, include hundreds of witnesses and cost millions of dollars. About 100 attorneys are involved in the case.

"With these high stakes, ... this court should take special care to ensure that the trial court does not burden the public and judiciary with a need to do it twice, by depriving defendants of fundamental procedural and constitutional rights to a fair trial,'" attorneys for the drug companies argued.

Randy Ellis

For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two... Read more ›

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