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Opioid settlement doesn't include cities, judge says

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Close-up of a person's hands holding a bottle of pills [File Art/The Oklahoman]
Close-up of a person's hands holding a bottle of pills [File Art/The Oklahoman]

The state of Oklahoma's $270 million settlement with Purdue's opioid manufacturing companies does not apply to the state's cities and counties unless they choose to opt into the deal, a Cleveland County district judge ruled Thursday.

"The cities of Broken Arrow, Enid, Lawton, Midwest City and Oklahoma City ... are not parties to, bound by, or otherwise subject to the terms of the 'Consent Judgment as to the Purdue Defendants,'" Judge Thad Balkman said in his court order.

To be included in the settlement, cities and counties would have to opt in, Balkman ruled.

Oklahoma City and the other four cities named by Judge Balkman are among a list of cities and counties that have chosen to pursue their own litigation against Purdue and other opioid manufacturers rather than participate in the state's lawsuit.

When Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter entered into a March 26 partial settlement agreement with Purdue, attorneys for several cities became concerned that judges in their other cases might construe the state's settlement agreement as applying to them and throw out the other lawsuits.

The cities asked to intervene in the state's lawsuit to make sure that didn't happen.

Judge Balkman rejected their request to intervene, essentially finding it wasn't necessary since they wouldn't be included in the settlement unless they chose to be.

The state's settlement with Purdue called for nearly $200 million of the settlement amount to go to Oklahoma State University's Center for Wellness and Recovery in Tulsa to help research and treat opioid addiction. It also called for $12.5 million to go to cities and counties that choose to participate to help them address the opioid addiction problem.

Purdue was dropped from the state's lawsuit as part of the settlement agreement, but the state is continuing to pursue a public nuisance claim against Johnson & Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc., and several related companies.

That lawsuit continues on track for a May 28 nonjury trial.

The state is seeking to hold the pharmaceutical companies financially responsible for costs associated with thousands of opioid overdose deaths and addictions. Attorneys for the state claim the companies engaged in a fraudulent marketing campaign in which they understated the addictive risks of opioid painkillers while overstating their therapeutic benefits.

Attorneys for the drug companies recently have filed a series of motions seeking to exclude several of the state's witnesses and asking the judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

In a motion filed Wednesday, attorneys for Johnson & Johnson and Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., accused the state's attorneys of trying to persuade the judge to misapply the state's public nuisance law. The drug company lawyers contend the law was written to deal with disputes involving property and public spaces, not product liability.

"The state's baseless claims are not supported by either Oklahoma law or the uncontested facts," said Norman attorney John Sparks, who represents Janssen Pharmaceuticals.

Reggie Whitten, one of the attorneys representing the state, hotly disputed the claim.

"If our claims were baseless, they would have been dismissed two years ago," Whitten said. "I've been practicing law in this state for almost 40 years. This is the most meritorious lawsuit I have ever seen in my career and we look forward to starting trial on May 28."

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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