Non-jury trial to decide Oklahoma's lawsuit against opioid manufacturers
NORMAN − A judge ruled Thursday that he, rather than a jury, will decide the outcome of Oklahoma's public nuisance case against opioid manufacturers.
Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman sided with attorneys for the state who argued he should decide the case.
Attorneys for the drug companies were split on the issue.
“We are pleased with today’s developments as we continue to look forward to our trial date where we will show how these companies deceived doctors and Oklahomans, leading to the current epidemic,” said Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter.
Hunter said the state intends to show Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceuticals USA made billions of dollars from addiction.
"The companies knew what they were doing when they hired third parties and key opinion leaders to spread pseudoscience and misinformation about their drugs," he said. "They put the corporate bottom line over the health and well-being of the thousands of individuals who have become addicted or who have died and we are going to make them answer for that."
Attorneys for Johnson & Johnson and Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., argued for a jury trial, but said they are now ready to move on with the case.
“The judge has made his ruling. We are preparing for trial at which the evidence will show Janssen acted appropriately and responsibly in the marketing of these FDA-approved products and the state’s allegations are baseless and unwarranted,” said John Sparks, Oklahoma counsel for Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Johnson & Johnson.
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Hunter initiated the lawsuit against the drug companies in 2017, accusing them of causing the opioid epidemic by making fraudulent marketing claims that greatly understated the addictive risks of opioid painkillers while overstating the treatment benefits.
The trial is on track to begin May 28.
The state initially accused the drug companies of fraud, violating the state's Consumer Protection Act, creating a public nuisance and other misconduct. The state dropped everything except the public nuisance claim earlier this month after entering into a $270 million partial settlement with Purdue Pharma that removed that company from the case.
Even though the public nuisance claim is all that remains against the other drug companies, the state's attorneys have indicated they still plan to seek billions of dollars to abate the opioid epidemic problem in the state.
"The law does not entitle trial by jury for public nuisance abatement," argued Bradley Beckworth, one of the outside attorneys representing the state.
The drug companies' right to demand a jury trial ended when Hunter dropped everything except the public nuisance claim against them, the state's attorneys argued. The state is only asking for a legal remedy to abate the opioid epidemic problem — not money for punitive or future damages — so a jury trial is not appropriate, they argued.
Attorneys for Teva Pharmaceuticals USA and some related companies were supportive of allowing the judge to decide the case, while attorneys for Johnson & Johnson and the Janssen family of pharmaceutical companies argued in favor of a jury trial.
"This is not about abating conduct. It's about the recovery of money," said Stephen D. Brody, who represents Johnson & Johnson and the Janssen companies.
Brody argued that when the recovery of money is being sought, Oklahoma law entitles a defendant to demand a jury trial.
Judge Balkman made his non-jury trial ruling Thursday at a pre-trial hearing in which several issues were considered.
On other matters, the judge:
• Rejected claims from Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Watson Laboratories, Actavis LLC and Actavis Pharma that they should be dismissed from the case.
• Ruled the case will be tried in the Cleveland County Courthouse rather than the University of Oklahoma law school as some had suggested.
• Said he would rule later on requests from the pharmaceutical companies to split the case in two, with one case centered on Johnson & Johnson and the Janssen family of pharmaceutical companies, and the other on Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Cephalon, Watson Laboratories, Actavis LLC and Actavis Pharma.