OKLAHOMA CITY – Pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacy chains are the targets of nearly 3,000 lawsuits filed throughout the country by state and local governments and other entities – 90 of them in Oklahoma. Most, but not all, of the lawsuits, filed from coast to coast, have been transferred to the U.S. District Court of Northern Ohio and consolidated into what is known collectively as the National Prescription Opiate Litigation.
A federal judicial panel selected U.S. District Judge Dan Polster to preside over the consolidated, multidistrict prescription opioid-related lawsuits. Plaintiffs in the multidistrict litigation include government entities, Native American tribes, hospitals, third-party payors, and individuals from across the nation who have sued manufacturers, distributors and retailers of prescription opiate drugs, “alleging they are liable for the costs Plaintiffs have incurred, and will continue to incur, in addressing the opioid public health crisis,” Polster wrote in an opinion and order issued in 2018.
ALTUS, PIONEER TELEPHONE AMONG PLAINTIFFS
The Oklahoma plaintiffs include 56 counties, 19 cities, 14 Native American tribes, and a telephone company that serves many rural areas of western Oklahoma.
Several of the lawsuits filed in Oklahoma allege the defendants “misrepresented the risks of Food and Drug Administration-approved opioid medications.”
The City of Altus’s allegation “centers on entirely different alleged conduct.” That municipality alleges that the distributor defendants “failed in their duty to ‘detect, investigate, refuse to fill, and report suspicious orders of prescription opioids, and negligently or intentionally failed to adequately control their supply lines to prevent diversion.”
Altus filed its lawsuit in Jackson County District Court on October 23. The case was transferred to the Western District federal court in Oklahoma City in late November and was still active on December 10, records indicate.
On behalf of its employee benefits plan, Pioneer Telephone Cooperative, based in Kingfisher, filed suit against Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, and several other drug manufacturers and distributors.
The “common questions” directed to the defendants include whether:
• they “misrepresented the safety and efficacy of opioids”;
• they “overstated the benefits and downplayed the risks of the use of their opioids and aggressively marketed ... these drugs to physicians, pharmacy benefit managers and third-party administrators”;
• the distributors “failed to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse, and report suspicious orders of prescription opiates”;
• their “unlawful conduct and continuing violations continue to cause improper losses” to employee benefit plans.
Pioneer serves an estimated 526,000 residents in western Oklahoma.
2019 TRIAL VERDICT NOW ON APPEAL IN OKLA. SUPREME COURT
Several drug manufacturers, including Johnson & Johnson, attempted to have a lawsuit that was filed against them in Cleveland County District Court removed to Oklahoma City’s Western District federal court in mid-2018. Now-retired U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange wrote that the pharmaceutical manufacturers’ “state law claims do not ‘necessarily raise’ a federal issue” and thus the federal court “does not have jurisdiction over this case...”
Subsequently, at the conclusion of a bench trial last year, Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman ruled that Johnson & Johnson created a public nuisance and he ordered the company to pay the State of Oklahoma $465 million with which to fight opioids. However, Balkman ruled that the state did not present sufficient evidence about the amount of time and costs necessary, beyond one year, to abate the crisis.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter and lawyers for the state argued that “undisputed” evidence showed it would take 20 years to defeat the deadly opioid epidemic. The state and Johnson & Johnson both appealed Balkman’s ruling.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court was asked on December 7 to order Johnson & Johnson to pay the state $9.3 billion to “provide complete relief” from the opioid crisis. In the alternative, Johnson & Johnson should be compelled to pay $465 million a year for 20 years “or until the trial court determines the crisis has been abated, whichever comes first,” the state’s attorneys recommended.
AG HUNTER ASSERTS PURDUE PHARMA ‘A CONVICTED CRIMINAL’
Two owners of Purdue Pharma, the company that makes OxyContin, acknowledged to Congress last week that the prescription painkiller played a role in the opioid epidemic. However, they stopped short of apologizing and said neither they nor the company’s board of directors did anything unethical or illegal.
Purdue pleaded guilty last month to federal fraud and kickback conspiracies, which resulted in an $8 billion settlement. However, the agreement did not result in criminal claims against Sackler family members.
Two and a half years ago Oklahoma AG Hunter declared bluntly that Purdue Pharma “is a convicted criminal.”
In a legal motion filed in June 2018, Hunter noted that in 2007 Purdue and its chief executive officer, its general counsel and its chief medical officer “all pleaded guilty for engaging in a decades-long effort to falsely influence the medical community to improperly prescribe opioid painkillers.”
Consequently, Purdue’s conduct “created the most severe public health crisis” Oklahoma and the United States “have ever seen.”