Johnson & Johnson opioids helped create 'worst man-made public health crisis in history,' Oklahoma says in court

The first trial against a pharmaceutical opioid manufacturer started in Oklahoma on Tuesday in what could be a precedent-setting case.

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By Xuan Thai

NORMAN, Okla. — The first trial against a pharmaceutical opioid manufacturer started Tuesday in Oklahoma in what could be a precedent-setting case for hundreds of other claims around the country.

The state's attorney general, Mike Hunter, began the day by accusing Johnson & Johnson of putting profits over responsibility and argued that the company was responsible for the "worst man-made public health crisis in the history of our state and country."

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In the multibillion-dollar lawsuit against the drugmaker, lawyers for the state argued that Johnson & Johnson knew about the addictive nature of opioids, but misled doctors by downplaying the risks of the drugs while touting its benefits.

Brad Beckworth, a lawyer for Oklahoma, argued that Johnson & Johnson was motivated to increase sales on multiple fronts as both the manufacturer of the drugs Duragesic and Nucynta and as a supplier of the raw materials for other opioid manufacturers. He argued that a marketing push by Johnson & Johnson lead doctors to overprescribe opioids in Oklahoma.

“If you oversupply, people will die,” Beckworth repeatedly said in his opening statement while showing email communications from Johnson & Johnson sales representatives.

Beckworth argued those emails showed the pressure tactics the company used to get doctors to prescribe Johnson & Johnson’s drugs.

State's attorney Brad Beckworth presents information in the opening statements during the Oklahoma v. Johnson & Johnson opioid trial at the Cleveland County Courthouse in Norman, Oklahoma on May 28, 2019.Chris Landsberger / Pool via Reuters

In its defense, Johnson & Johnson lawyer Larry Ottway argued that the company clearly labeled its drugs and highlighted the addictive nature and risks of its product. Ottway displayed for the court slides of all the warnings that come with its drugs. He also argued that Johnson and Johnson's share of the opioid market in Oklahoma was too small to be responsible for the crisis.

Oklahoma settled with two other drug manufacturers before Tuesday’s opening statements. In March, Purdue Pharma settled for $270 million, and on Sunday, Teva Pharmaceuticals settled for $85 million, leaving Johnson & Johnson as the sole defendants in what could a monthslong bench trial.

Ottway addressed Johnson & Johnson’s position as the sole remaining defendant, concluding “if you’re right, you must fight.”