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Opioid makers seek delay in start of state trial

NORMAN — Pharmaceutical company attorneys are requesting a 100-day delay in the start of a trial in which opioid manufacturing companies are accused of causing thousands of Oklahoma overdose deaths and addictions through the fraudulent marketing of their powerful pain killing drugs.

They want the trial's start delayed from May 28 to Sept. 16.

Attorneys for the state oppose the delay, calling the request "frivolous, desperate, and disingenuous."

Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman has scheduled a hearing for 3:30 p.m. Friday to hear arguments on the matter.

The trial is drawing national attention because it has the earliest scheduled trial date of hundreds of lawsuits filed by cities, counties, Native American tribes and other entities that are seeking to recover billions of dollars in damages from entities that are part of the opioid supply chain.

About 1,600 of those cases reportedly have been consolidated in a multidistrict federal case in Ohio, but Oklahoma is one of about three dozen states that have filed lawsuits in state courts seeking to have local juries determine the outcome.

One of the drugmakers, Purdue, is preparing to file for bankruptcy protection, according to reports from Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.

Purdue spokesman Robert Josephson declined to comment on the reports.

"We are, however, committed to ensuring that our business remains strong and sustainable," Josephson said in an email.

"We have ample liquidity and remain committed to meeting our obligations to the patients who benefit from our medicines, our suppliers and other business partners."

In requesting a delay of the Oklahoma trial, drug company attorneys stated they need time to process "165,000 documents totaling almost 1.6 million pages" of evidence that the state's attorneys didn't turn over to attorneys for the 13 drug company defendants until Feb. 21.

Even with the proposed delay, "it may still be possible ... to keep this case on track to be the first of the nation's opioid cases scheduled for trial," drug company attorneys said.

The drug companies contend delaying the trial is a matter of fundamental fairness.

"A continuance serves the interests of justice and results in a relatively short delay," drug company attorneys stated. "The alternative is a fundamentally unfair pretrial process that is destined to end in an equally unfair trial."

State counters

Attorneys for the state countered that the drug companies have acted even slower than the state in turning over large volumes of documents, noting those companies have turned over 480,000 documents containing more than 2.88 million pages since the state turned over its large volume of documents on Feb. 21.

"That's 2.88 million pages the state could not review when it was preparing to take the 95 depositions it's taken to date," the state's attorneys said. "But do you hear the state complaining? No. We're too busy preparing for trial and actually taking depositions."

"There is no way — no way — any of these defendants can face a jury," the state's attorneys stated in a court filing. "They know it. Their witnesses know it. Their consultants know it. Their attorneys know it. Morality. Facts. Law. None of them align with the decades-long sinister conduct of these defendants."

The state's attorneys have accused drug company attorneys of seeking to delay the trial to give Purdue companies more time to prepare and file for bankruptcy, which could delay Oklahoma's trial even further.

"They don't want to answer for devastation like Oklahoma babies born dependent on opioids and writhing in pain ... , and they are terrified of the thought of having to do so in an Oklahoma courtroom, live, on-camera, for the world to see," the state's attorneys said.

Balkman has ruled that news cameras will be allowed in the courtroom to cover the trial. Still to be decided is whether the trial will be conducted in the Cleveland County courthouse or at the University of Oklahoma law school.

The state's attorneys have asked Balkman to break the case up into separate cases against different drug companies, and then consolidate them back together at the time of trial, in a legal maneuver designed to prevent the cases against companies other than Purdue from being delayed if Purdue declares bankruptcy.

Five of the accused drug companies — Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc.; Cephalon Inc.; Watson Laboratories Inc.; Actavis LLC; and Actavis Pharma Inc. — also are asking that the cases be broken apart, but they want the cases to be tried separately rather than consolidated again later.

Their attorneys contend a joint trial would prejudice them because of the false marketing allegations state attorneys intend to present against Purdue.

The judge is expected to rule on issues related to separate trials at a later date.

Bloomberg contributed to this report.

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 ›