Judge denies defense’s dismissal motion; opioid trial moves forward

NORMAN, Okla. - An Oklahoma judge overseeing the trial against the nation's largest drugmaker ruled Monday the trial will go forward.

Attorneys for Johnson & Johnson filed a motion for directed verdict, asking the judge to end the trial and rule in the company's favor. Judge Thad Balkman heard legal arguments for roughly two hours Monday morning before announcing he felt there was sufficient evidence to proceed with the case.

Such motions are common in a civil trial. In this case, Johnson & Johnson is accused of fueling the opioid crisis through deceptive marketing and downplaying the risks of addiction.

On Monday, attorney Stephen Brody questioned why the state brought a public nuisance claim against the company and pointed to the obesity epidemic as an example.

"If the state is correct and if public nuisance law is something that can be applied to a public health crisis, there is nothing stopping a litigant from going after fast food manufacturers. There’s scientific literature out there that says fast food, high calorie foods, high fat foods, the fact that Americans very likely eat more fast food than people in other countries is something that can explain the obesity epidemic," Brody said. "But, does that mean that a fast food manufacturer, a McDonald’s, a Sonic is responsible for what the state would say here is ‘abatement’... but what are the harms associated with that epidemic? To fund treatment for high cholesterol, to fund treatment for diabetes, to take over medicaid’s reimbursement for treatment of heart attacks? To fund exercise programs in schools? Absolutely not. Public nuisance law does not allow that."

Brody also pointed to questions key witnesses presented by the state were unable to answer in the weeks-long trial.

"Well, how much is too much [oversupply]? Which prescriptions should not have been written? Which patients shouldn’t have received medications to treat their pain?" he said.

Brad Beckworth, an attorney representing the state of Oklahoma, fired back and called the motion a PR stunt.

"When I started opening statements here with the attorney general on May 28, their (Johnson & Johnson) stock dropped to a tune of about $25 billion in market cap in the 24 hours after we started," Beckworth told the judge. "Making a claim that this opioid crisis is akin to childhood obesity. I mean, really? That’s as bad as it gets, but I would submit to you that Johnson & Johnson could make money off causing kids to get fat or try to figure out a way to hook to get them to be skinny? If they could, they would."

Beckworth claimed the company wanted to "hide the truth" and "didn't want to be honest."

"I’ve never seen such aggressive objections in my career. I’ve never seen lawyers try to cut off witnesses like they’re doing," he said. "They don’t care about helping the state. They don’t care about being at the commission. They don’t care about helping abate this crisis. They care about protecting their backside. That’s it. That’s the moral fabric of Johnson & Johnson, right there."

With the judge's rejection of the motion, the company is permitted to present more witnesses and evidence. Two recorded depositions and a Tulsa-based physician were presented witnesses Monday.

Dr. Charles Argoff, a neurologist with the Albany Medical Center, appeared in an hour-long recorded deposition in which he stated he didn't believe drug manufacturers bear any "direct responsibility" in the opioid crisis.

The FDA approves the availability of the drugs and it is the federal agency's mission to ensure the safe use of medications, Argoff said.

"I believe I characterized it as an opioid overdose concern in this country," he told attorneys on the tape. "What we face now as a country with respect to opioid overdose — opioid overdoses, unintentional, intentional — is an extremely complicated subject and cannot be pinned on the manufacturers of these agents, in my opinion."

Attorney General Hunter called the ruling by Judge Balkman a win for the state and the victims of the opioid epidemic:

“The motion, filed by the company last week, was the latest attempt to cut and run from the crisis it created,” Attorney General Hunter said in a press release. “Our case has revealed how corporate greed got in the way of responsible practices by Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries. Our evidence has shown how the company perpetuated the epidemic through the targeting of high prescribing doctors, repeatedly ignoring warnings to clean up its act by the federal government and its own scientific advisers and the myriad of other deceitful practices on its way to selling more highly addictive drugs to a vulnerable population.

“In every turn of this case, Johnson & Johnson has attempted to keep the judge and the public from seeing the truth. Luckily, Judge Balkman has seen through all of these desperate motions that have attempted to remove, halt or delay the trial and justice for the thousands of deaths due to the epidemic.”

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