NORMAN, Okla. – In the first major civil trial in the opioid epidemic, the state of Oklahoma is accusing Johnson & Johnson of fueling the state’s raging opioid crisis.
During opening arguments, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter called the epidemic the worst man-made public health crisis in the history of the nation and state.
“To put it bluntly, this crisis is devastating Oklahoma,” Hunter said. “Our evidence will show that 4,653 Oklahomans died of unintentional overdoses involving prescription opioids from 2007 to 2017.”
The state claims Johnson & Johnson, the nation’s largest drugmaker, has used deceptive marketing to downplay the risks of addiction and create an oversupply of painkillers.
“How did this happen? At the end of the day, your honor, I have a short, one-word answer: greed,” Hunter said. “Money may not be the root of all evil, but I have learned this in my nearly 40 years as a lawyer and public servant. Money can make people and businesses do bad things, very bad things.”
Larry Ottaway, an attorney with the defense counsel, countered the state’s arguments during his opening statement Tuesday. Ottaway pointed to a 2009 statement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which said painkillers, when properly managed, rarely caused addiction.
Ottaway also told the court Janssen Pharmaceutica, whose parent company is Johnson & Johnson, “pioneers” FDA-approved medications. During his opening arguments, he also added an approval from the FDA means benefits outweigh the risks.
“We’re not mocking anyone,” he said. “John Adams said, in a famous closing argument, ‘facts are stubborn things.’ Indeed, they are.”
Ottaway pointed to statistics on chronic pain Tuesday. One chart titled ‘Chronic Pain Affects Millions’ was shown to the judge and stated 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. suffered from chronic pain. Ottaway said their products were medically necessary.
The medications were approved and regulated by the FDA, Ottaway said. He said the medications were also lawfully marketed and licensed to Oklahoma doctors. In court, he argued they have been provided zero documentation of addictions or deaths due to an Oklahoma doctor prescribing one of their allegedly misrepresented medications.
“And, how many would it take for us to be responsible for a nuisance? A public nuisance. Even if the theory could be stretched that far,” he said.
The state’s first witness to testify Tuesday was Dr. Julio Rojas. His expertise is in the area of addiction. He described opioid addiction as a vicious cycle.
Speaking with reporters after court adjourned late Tuesday afternoon, Hunter said the trial is expected to last weeks.
“We’re confident the judge is not going to be distracted by looking at the micro. The judge is going to look at the big picture here,” he said.
The lawsuit was first filed in June 2017. At the time, there were other defendants listed including Perdue Pharma and the Israeli-based Teva Pharmaceuticals. Both reached multi-million dollar settlements with the state, leaving Johnson & Johnson as the remaining defendant.