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Oklahoma's request for split trial rejected in lawsuit against opioid manufacturers

NORMAN — A judge Thursday rejected a request to use two jury trials instead of one to decide Oklahoma's claims against opioid manufacturers.

Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman issued his ruling Thursday afternoon after meeting with attorneys.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter filed a lawsuit against more than a dozen pharmaceutical companies last summer, accusing them of contributing to Oklahoma's epidemic of opioid addiction and overdose deaths by orchestrating a fraudulent marketing campaign.

The lawsuit alleges the campaign greatly understated the addictive risks of the powerful painkillers while overstating treatment benefits.

Attorneys for the state had sought permission to use two trials instead of one to present their claims.

They asked to present their public nuisance claim during the first trial. The proposal called for reserving the second trial for the state's other claims, which include alleged violations of the Oklahoma Medicaid False Claims and Oklahoma Medicaid Program Integrity Acts.

Presenting the case through two trials would make it easier for attorneys to be ready for the ambitious May 2019 scheduled start date for the trial, the state's attorneys said.

Attorney Bradley Beckworth said delaying the trial would not be a good option.

"We lose lives every day," he told the judge.

Attorneys for the opioid manufacturing companies argued against separate trials. Split trials would result in a lot of duplication because many of the same witnesses and much of the same evidence would be required for each trial, said Stephen Brody, an attorney for Janssen Pharmaceuticals.

Brody also argued that it would be an abuse of discretion for the judge to grant separate trials and it would create prejudice against the drug companies.

"There can't be shortcuts on the road to giving the defendants a fair trial in this case," Brody said.

The judge ultimately sided with the drug companies and said he intends to do all he can to keep the case on track for a May 2019 trial date.

Reggie Whitten, one of the attorneys for the state, called the judge's ruling Thursday a mere "speed bump" and said the state's legal team plans to be prepared to go to trial in May.

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 ›