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Johnson & Johnson in the crosshairs of Oklahoma's opioid trial

Purdue Pharma agrees to $270M settlement
  • The first opioid lawsuit to go to trial is set to open Tuesday in court in Norman, Oklahoma.
  • Oklahoma is suing Johnson & Johnson, which produces a fentanyl patch, and several of its subsidiaries.
  • The state has already reached several settlements with other drugmakers, including Teva Pharmaceuticals and Purdue Pharma.

Oklahoma is poised to become the first state to go to trial in a lawsuit against a pharmaceutical maker who is accused of fueling the state's widespread opioid crisis.

The state, and several others, have already reached settlements with drugmakers. But the trial, set to begin Tuesday in Norman against consumer products giant Johnson & Johnson and several of its subsidiaries, could bring to light documents and testimony that show what the companies knew, when they knew it, and how they responded.

The outcome could also shape negotiations on how to resolve the more than 1,500 opioid lawsuits filed by state, local and tribal governments against pharmaceutical companies. Those have been consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio.

Oklahoma alleges the defendants helped fuel a public health crisis in the state by extensively marketing highly addictive opioids in a way that overstated their effectiveness and misrepresented addiction risk, thereby creating billions of dollars worth of damage.

Opioids and unemployment: stopping the cycle

The drugmakers deny using deceptive marketing practices. OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, which was originally included in the high-profile case, in March agreed to a $270 settlement. 

Israel-based Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. on Sunday settled for $85 million without admitting to wrongdoing. Teva's settlement "will be used to abate the opioid crisis in Oklahoma," Oklahoma's attorney general Mike Hunter said Sunday. 

The state has since March shifted its aim toward Johnson & Johnson, which, in addition to baby powder and baby shampoo, produces a fentanyl patch.

Oklahoma will argue that J & J violated public nuisance law, while the company is expected to argue that the law does not apply in this case. 

Opioids, including prescription drugs and illicit ones such as heroin, were factors in nearly 48,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That was more deaths than the number of people killed in automobile crashes that year.