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State's opioid case transforms in surprising turn of events

In a surprising turn of events, attorneys for the state of Oklahoma on Thursday dismissed everything but a public nuisance claim against opioid manufacturers and announced they will seek to have the case tried by a judge instead of a jury.

Fraud, unjust enrichment and other claims the state filed against the drug companies were dismissed without prejudice, which means they could be filed again later if attorneys for the state choose to do so.

Attorneys for the drug companies have not yet agreed to a nonjury trial. They are expected to file briefs with the court next week explaining their positions on that issue.

Attorney General Mike Hunter said dismissing fraud and other claims will enable the state to refocus its attention on the public nuisance claim, which he described as the most crucial claim from the state's point of view.

The public nuisance claim allows the state to press for a judgment or settlement that would require drug companies to fund and participate in a comprehensive plan to remediate the effects the opioid crisis continues to have across the state, the attorney general's office said.

The state is seeking to hold the pharmaceutical companies financially responsible for costs associated with thousands of opioid overdose deaths and addictions, which the state's attorneys have blamed on a fraudulent marketing campaign by drug companies that understated the addictive risks of opioids, while overstating their therapeutic benefits.

Dismissing the other claims does not reduce the amount of damages the state is seeking, state attorneys said.

The state will ask for between $13 billion and $17 billion in damages through its public nuisance claim, said Michael Burrage, one of the state's outside attorneys.

How that claim is resolved could significantly impact whether the state decides to refile and pursue its other claims, he said.

A drug company attorney, however, interpreted the dismissals as a sign that the state's case was weak.

“We are pleased that the attorney general dismissed most of the claims, which underscores their lack of merit," Sabrina Strong, national counsel for Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Johnson & Johnson said Thursday. "The evidence presented at trial will show that Janssen’s actions in the marketing and promotion of its important, FDA-approved prescription pain medications were appropriate and responsible. We will continue to defend against the remaining baseless and unsubstantiated allegations.”

Thursday's surprise action by the state was announced during an emergency hearing in Cleveland County District Court that was not attended by The Oklahoman because no public notice was given.

The hearing was one of many held in the case where Judge Thad Balkman has been asked to rule on a variety of complex issues.

Hunter and his legal team have claimed the flurry of legal motions filed by attorneys for the pharmaceutical companies were an attempt to delay the May 28 trial, which remains on schedule.

“The defendants in this case have tried in every way imaginable to derail our trial date,” Hunter said. “Judge Balkman has repeatedly denied requests to push the trial back multiple times, just as the Oklahoma Supreme Court has. Moving forward with the state’s public nuisance claim moots most of the issues raised by the defendants in discovery, allowing the parties and the judge to focus on preparing for this trial, set to begin in less than eight weeks."

Burrage said pretrial procedures and the trial, itself, should be more streamlined now that the other claims have been dismissed.

The attorney general's office said having the case tried by a judge, rather than a jury, also would address prior criticisms by drug company attorneys that allowing cameras in the courtroom could prejudice or distract a jury. Judge Balkman has issued an order that would allow cameras in the courtroom for the trial.

The state's action in dismissing many of its claims was particularly surprising since just last week Hunter announced that a $270 million settlement had been reached with Purdue Pharma that resulted in that company being dropped from the lawsuit.

The Oklahoma State University Center for Wellness and Recovery in Tulsa is scheduled to receive nearly $200 million of that settlement. Cities and counties will receive $12.5 million to abate and address the impact of the opioid epidemic and $60 million was designated to pay for the state's attorney fees and litigation expenses.

Related Photos
<strong>Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter answers questions during a news conference Monday, April 1, 2019, in Oklahoma City. A $270 million settlement between the state of Oklahoma and the maker of OxyContin received high praise last week as an innovative way to help combat opioid addiction. Hunter is now facing bipartisan backlash from Oklahoma lawmakers who say he overstepped his authority and circumvented their role.  (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)</strong>

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter answers questions during a news conference Monday, April 1, 2019, in Oklahoma City. A $270 million settlement between the state of Oklahoma and the maker of OxyContin received high praise last week as an innovative way to help combat opioid addiction. Hunter...

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-4d06773c459c61cd68b43f463f043453.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter answers questions during a news conference Monday, April 1, 2019, in Oklahoma City. A $270 million settlement between the state of Oklahoma and the maker of OxyContin received high praise last week as an innovative way to help combat opioid addiction. Hunter is now facing bipartisan backlash from Oklahoma lawmakers who say he overstepped his authority and circumvented their role. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki) " title=" Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter answers questions during a news conference Monday, April 1, 2019, in Oklahoma City. A $270 million settlement between the state of Oklahoma and the maker of OxyContin received high praise last week as an innovative way to help combat opioid addiction. Hunter is now facing bipartisan backlash from Oklahoma lawmakers who say he overstepped his authority and circumvented their role. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki) "><figcaption> Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter answers questions during a news conference Monday, April 1, 2019, in Oklahoma City. A $270 million settlement between the state of Oklahoma and the maker of OxyContin received high praise last week as an innovative way to help combat opioid addiction. Hunter is now facing bipartisan backlash from Oklahoma lawmakers who say he overstepped his authority and circumvented their role. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki) </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-074065fcd8654d8eb674c57a41849780.jpg" alt="Photo - Dr. Kayse Shrum talks about $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma, $200 million to establish endowment for OSU Center for Wellness and Recovery. Also pictured, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter is on the left, OSU president Burns Hargis is on the right." title="Dr. Kayse Shrum talks about $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma, $200 million to establish endowment for OSU Center for Wellness and Recovery. Also pictured, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter is on the left, OSU president Burns Hargis is on the right."><figcaption>Dr. Kayse Shrum talks about $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma, $200 million to establish endowment for OSU Center for Wellness and Recovery. Also pictured, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter is on the left, OSU president Burns Hargis is on the right.</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-3469686278756ede0840f84b8963f11c.jpg" alt="Photo - Dr. Kayse Shrum, with Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, left, and OSU President Burns Hargis, right, announces a $200 million endowment for OSU’s Center for Wellness and Recovery, part of the state’s $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma." title="Dr. Kayse Shrum, with Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, left, and OSU President Burns Hargis, right, announces a $200 million endowment for OSU’s Center for Wellness and Recovery, part of the state’s $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma."><figcaption>Dr. Kayse Shrum, with Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, left, and OSU President Burns Hargis, right, announces a $200 million endowment for OSU’s Center for Wellness and Recovery, part of the state’s $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma.</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-8ece704fb2cc02b8ffea805c3e6929c7.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma State University Burns Hargis talks about the $200 million to establish an endowment for OSU’s Center for Wellness and Recovery, part of the state’s $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma." title="Oklahoma State University Burns Hargis talks about the $200 million to establish an endowment for OSU’s Center for Wellness and Recovery, part of the state’s $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma."><figcaption>Oklahoma State University Burns Hargis talks about the $200 million to establish an endowment for OSU’s Center for Wellness and Recovery, part of the state’s $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma.</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-cb7047917eeb317d095b2f507e6e89fa.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter announces $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma, $200 million to establish endowment for OSU Center for Wellness and Recovery." title="Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter announces $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma, $200 million to establish endowment for OSU Center for Wellness and Recovery."><figcaption>Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter announces $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma, $200 million to establish endowment for OSU Center for Wellness and Recovery.</figcaption></figure>
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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