Beckworth and Ottaway
NORMAN, Okla. (Legal Newsline) – Opening arguments began Tuesday in a first-ever trial in attempt to hold drug manufacturers accountable for an opioid over-dose crisis, accusing Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary company Janssen Pharmaceuticals of providing medications for profit that destroyed thousands of lives.
“If you over-supply (opioids), people will die,” said Brad Beckworth, the attorney representing the State of Oklahoma.
Attorneys for Johnson & Johnson maintained that blame for opioid abuse should not be pinned on them.
The trial in the Cleveland County District Court is being streamed live courtesy of Courtroom View Network.
The suit launched by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter is bound to set a precedent for hundreds of cases in other states that could follow against drug companies for their pain-killing medications.
Pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma of Connecticut settled with Oklahoma for $270 million in March and another company, Teva Pharmaceutical based in Israel, for $85 million last week.
That leaves Johnson & Johnson, a worldwide conglomerate famous for its talc baby powder, as primary defendant in the case at trial. It is a bench trial presided over by Judge Thad Balkman, and is expected to last into July.
The suit alleges that J&J, along with Purdue and Teva, makers of the pain killer OxyContin, carried out a fraudulent advertising campaign to over-supply opiates to the public for profits. Other opioid drugs include a J&J brand called Duragesic, which dispenses opioids by the use of a timed-release patch, and a pill called Nucynta.
Hunter called it the worst public health crisis in the state’s history.
During opening remarks, plaintiff attorney Beckworth, outside counsel with the law firm of Nix Patterson out of Texarkana, Texas, said Johnson & Johnson created a need for opiates that did not exist before 1996.
“The marketing idea was that pain was a major problem and needed to be treated with opioids,” he said. “You create the need to sell to the need.”
Beckworth said Johnson & Johnson had pursued an aggressive policy of influencing the promotion of opioid drugs, doing a sell-job on doctors, legislators and the public.
“At every decision, Johnson & Johnson was there first,” he said. “They co-opted the decision making process.”
The alleged influence peddling included donations to organizations like the American Pain Foundation which received $600,000.
Beckworth said the over-supply of drugs added up to 135 pills for every adult in Cleveland County resulting in more than 139,000 deaths from drug overdoses between 2000 and 2017.
“I would say we have a crisis,” Beckworth said.
Beckworth said J&J sales personnel visited doctors to sell the drugs and treated them to dinners as an incentive to purchase.
“They (Johnson & Johnson) wanted to build a billion dollar brand,” he said.
Also representing the state, Reggie Whitten of the Oklahoma City law firm of Whitten Burrage, said the company (J&J) had built up a mountain of sales causing an epidemic of opioid addiction.
“It was real easy, it worked (selling),” he said. "It’s really difficult to fix it. This is a disease of the brain.”
Michael Burrage, of the same firm, said the selling of opioid drugs amounted to a nuisance that injured and endangered the public.
“The facts show that Johnson & Johnson falsely promoted opioids, flooding Oklahoma with highly addictive drugs that led to overdose, death and disease,” he said.
Every 19 minutes someone dies from a prescription drug overdose, the state contends.
However, Larry Ottaway, attorney for Johnson & Johnson with Foliart, Huff, Ottaway & Bottom of Oklahoma City, said it was the state’s responsibility to monitor and correct illegal prescribing of medicated drugs.
“It must strike a balance between safe and appropriate access to treatment for pain,” he said. “I’m not questioning the pain of families facing the horror of addiction. Let’s talk about why these drugs exist. What is it like when pain never goes away? Pain is a soul-stealing thief that can lead to depression and suicide.”
Ottaway said that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in five adults suffer from chronic pain, 50 million nationally representing $560 billion lost through disability.
“Janssen (J&J) did not invent this disease (addiction),” he said. “They were trying to assist in the treatment of disease.”
Ottaway indicated numerous health organizations like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were involved in the process of approving drugs for use through detailed licensing and clinical testing before marketing to the public. He added that some of the drugs in question took a decade to be approved.
“The FDA determines that the benefits outweigh the risks,” Ottaway said. “Supply is fixed by the government and limits the supply available. A drug must be licensed and registered. Prescriptions must be reported and class-two drugs come with warning labels (about addiction abuse).”
Ottaway disputed the notion the process had been influenced by (J&J) sales reps having dinner with doctors or the idea the company was an impersonal and hostile corporation.
“Sales reps (J&J) live right here in Oklahoma,” he said. “They send their children to doctors right here in Oklahoma.”
Ottaway said restricting the availability of pain killing drugs would decrease the quality of life for people suffering from chronic pain.
“Use of the word nuisance does not apply,” he said. “These medications were approved by the FDA and lawfully proscribed by doctors licensed by the State of Oklahoma. The state is seeking damages, but I believe this (court) is a level playing field."
Ottaway indicated placing the blame on Janssen Pharmaceuticals and Johnson & Johnson would be unfair.
“Why would they ask for the state to give itself money?” Ottaway said. “We can solve the problem (opioid addiction), but we don’t need to do this to do it. When you’re right you fight.”