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Battle looms over effort to move Oklahoma opioid lawsuit to federal court

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter vowed Thursday to fight an effort by pharmaceutical companies to have a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers decided in federal court.

Attorneys for the state plan to ask an Oklahoma City federal judge to conduct an emergency hearing, where they can argue drug company attorneys breached a contractual agreement by transferring the case.

State attorneys will ask that the case be sent back to Cleveland County District Court and allowed to proceed, Hunter said.

Pharmaceutical company attorneys had the case moved Wednesday as state attorneys were preparing to take the deposition of a drug company witness about political contributions, said Michael Burrage, another attorney who is representing the state in the lawsuit.

"They were going to have to produce a witness to swear under oath what political contributions they had made to candidates in Oklahoma," Burrage said.

The lawsuit accuses more than a dozen opioid manufacturing companies of contributing to an epidemic of drug addiction and overdose deaths by fraudulently marketing their products.

Attorneys for the pharmaceutical companies filed a notice of removal in federal court Wednesday, which freezes any further action in the Cleveland County court until a federal judge determines the proper venue.

Hunter said this is the first step in efforts by the drug manufacturers to ultimately have the case transferred to a federal court in Ohio, where it would be consolidated with hundreds of other cases against opioid manufacturers.

The attorney general vowed to try to prevent that from happening.

"We will not join the cases before the federal court in Ohio, and we will hold Purdue accountable for the thousands of deaths, for the generation of addicts and for the billions of dollars that they have caused to our state," Hunter said.

Hunter said he hopes an emergency hearing can be scheduled "within the next several days."

"In filing this, Purdue (Pharma) breached its agreement signed on July 24, 2017, where it agreed that it would not try to remove the case to federal court," Hunter said.

Burrage said the agreement was that the pharmaceutical companies would not try to transfer the case to federal court as long as the state agreed to certain scheduling concessions and didn't amend its lawsuit. He said the state has not amended its lawsuit.

Hunter said the removal notice was filed one day before state attorneys were scheduled to question a pharmaceutical company witness about a letter they published in The New York Times "claiming that they were partners in the fight against the opioid crisis."

"Purdue has instead taken this step to ensure that it can continue to fraudulently drive up the sale of its opioids," Hunter said. "It's clear to us that our case is their biggest fear in the country and they will do anything in their power to stop it or drag it out."

In their notice of removal, attorneys for the pharmaceutical companies argued that federal court was the appropriate place for the case to be heard because Oklahoma was asking the companies to make different safety and efficacy disclosures to the public than those required by federal law and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

If the state seeks to challenge the transfer of the case to federal court, the pharmaceutical companies suggest that a federal court in the Northern District of Ohio be allowed to decide the dispute, because that's where several similar lawsuits against opioid manufacturers have been consolidated.

Hunter said Oklahoma has no desire to be part of the Ohio case.

"They want this case to go before a judge in Cleveland, Ohio, and a room full of nameless, faceless attorneys from all over the country," Hunter said, adding that he wants the case tried before of jury of Oklahomans in Cleveland County.

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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