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Effort to expedite venue decision in opioids case rejected by federal judge

An Oklahoma City federal judge has rejected an emergency request from the state to speed up legal arguments over whether Oklahoma's lawsuit against opioid manufacturers should be moved back to state court in Cleveland County.

Attorneys for the state say they plan to ask U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange to reconsider her decision — saying she risks having an Ohio federal court take over the case before she can rule unless she quickly reverses her decision.

An Ohio court takeover would be devastating to Oklahoma's efforts to recover billions of dollars in damages that the state alleges drug companies caused through the fraudulent marketing of the powerful painkillers, said Michael Burrage, one of the private attorneys assisting Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter with the lawsuit.

"This is a case that needs to be decided by an Oklahoma judge and Oklahoma jury and not shipped off to Columbus, Ohio, before a federal judge who has no connections to the state of Oklahoma," Burrage said.

Attorneys for Purdue Pharma and other opioid manufacturers moved the case to Oklahoma City federal court last Wednesday, contending there were important federal legal issues that needed to be resolved.

Drug company attorneys contend the state is asking them to make different safety and efficacy disclosures to the public than those required by federal law and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They argue a federal court, not a state court, should rule on such issues.

Attorneys for the state cried foul, accusing drug company attorneys of violating a written agreement not to try to transfer the case to federal court as long as the state agreed to certain scheduling concessions and didn't amend its lawsuit.

They asked Judge Miles-LaGrange to shorten the normal timeline for legal filings in the venue dispute, saying an emergency exists because 175 Americans are dying every day from the opioid epidemic.

Drug company attorneys argued against a shortened timeline, contending the venue dispute raises "important questions of federal jurisdiction that deserve careful and due attention."

Judge LaGrange sided with the pharmaceutical companies, citing "important and significant legal issues that require careful and thorough research and briefing to ensure a decision that is well informed and well reasoned."

The judge also noted that a federal court in Ohio that has been handling pretrial matters in hundreds of consolidated cases against opioid manufacturers had issued a "conditional transfer order" for the Oklahoma case.

"While this conditional transfer order has not been filed and there is a seven-day stay of the filing of the order to allow any opposition to be filed, the court finds that the initiation of the conditional transfer process further supports no expedited schedule being imposed," LaGrange said in her order.

LaGrange stated she thought it was important to allow the conditional transfer process to conclude before ruling in the Oklahoma case.

Attorneys for the state contend that may be too late.

"The reality of this is she may lose jurisdiction over this case somewhere between this coming Friday and whenever the conditional transfer order is confirmed," said Reggie Whitten, a private attorney who is helping represent the state.

"The multidistrict litigation essentially sends us from the front of the line to the end of the line," Whitten said. "Instead of getting to trial in May 2019, maybe we'll end up having it sent back to Oklahoma in 2024."

Whitten said it's not unusual for consolidated proceedings like those in the Ohio federal court to take three to six years.

"By that time, who knows? There may be no money left to get," he said.

"We have people dying every day. We have people becoming addicted every day," Burrage said. "We have a tremendous burden that is being placed on taxpayers and the attorney general is trying to recover damages."

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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