Okla. opioid settlement: Most to OSU, lawyers, and small percentage to cities and counties

By John O'Brien | Mar 29, 2019

OKLAHOMA CITY (Legal Newsline) – A small portion of the $270 million settlement reached by Purdue Pharma and Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter “directly” addresses the opioid crisis around the state, while the bulk goes to lawyers and a research center at Oklahoma State University.

This week, Oxycontin-maker Purdue Pharma agreed to spend $270 million to settle the lawsuit brought by Hunter.

Hunter’s lawyers have scored one of the earliest trial dates (the federal multidistrict litigation in Ohio is preparing for two bellwether trials later this year).

Earlier this month, a Cleveland County judge denied the defendants’ motion for a stay of the trial, leaving it scheduled to begin on May 28. Hunter and Purdue Pharma then crafted a settlement that gives nearly $200 million to a recovery center at Oklahoma State University.

Another $60 million goes to the lawyers who gave Hunter nearly $100,000 for his 2018 campaign. Only $12.5 million will “go towards providing funds to directly abate and address the opioid epidemic’s effects in Oklahoma’s cities and counties,” a Hunter press release says.

The money going to Oklahoma State University will go toward “treating the ongoing addiction epidemic nationwide.” The facility says it is committed to improving the lives of Oklahomans affected by substance abuse.

The facility will start with an initial $102.5 million, then receive $15 million per year for the next five years. Another $20 million in medicines will be provided.

A search of Oklahoma Ethics Commission records show the lawyers hired by Oklahoma and their families gave more than $95,000 during Hunter’s campaign. Having been hired in 2017, they had an interest in keeping Hunter in office.

The firms chosen by Hunter were Whitten Burrage, Nix Patterson and Glenn Coffee & Associates.

Last year, attorney Gentner Drummond - who lost a close race to Hunter in the Republican primary for Attorney General - asked for more information on how these lawyers were chosen

In releasing terms of their contract, Hunter called Michael Burrage and Reggie Whitten “great Oklahomans” with track records of success. The release also stated that contracts with outside attorneys are exempt from competitive bidding. 

About a week after Hunter released the records, Drummond criticized the process used for selecting the contingency fee lawyers, as well as the terms, saying the deal they got was "just wrong" and "too rich" for litigation that poses little risk.

Observers have called the sprawling litigation against opioid makers and distributors “the next tobacco,” a reference to the landmark $250-billion deal in the 1990s. In it, politically connected plaintiffs lawyers teamed with state attorneys general to broker a deal that paid the lawyers billions in fees.

Variations have been used since. Critics call it “pay-to-play.”       

There are literally thousands of opioid suits brought by private lawyers working on contingency fees for city, county and state officials, including municipalities in Oklahoma. It remains to be seen how the State’s settlement will affect their cases against Purdue Pharma.

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Oklahoma Attorney General's Office Purdue Pharma

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