As Oklahoma nears its trial date with a group of opioid manufacturers the state accuses of intentionally fueling the opioid crisis, it’s still unclear how much money the state is seeking from the pharmaceutical giants.
The Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office has never said how much money it is seeking from the pharmaceutical companies, and though a recently-filed court document had an amount sought by the state included, the number was redacted.
Asked about the redaction and whether the attorney general’s office would disclose the amount, a spokesman for Attorney General Mike Hunter declined to comment.
“We are not going to comment on litigation strategy,” spokesman Alex Gerszewski told The Frontier.
The lawsuit, filed by Hunter in 2017, accuses 18 opioid manufacturing companies and corporate subsidies of knowingly fueling the state’s opioid crisis with an aggressive marketing campaign that made false and dangerous claims about the dangers of the drugs.
Oklahoma is one of at least 35 states filing similar lawsuits against opioid manufacturers, including the manufacturer of Oxycontin, Purdue Pharma. The suits allege, among a variety of complaints, that Purdue Pharma instructed sales representatives to downplay the addictive nature of its drugs.
Experts have speculated in interviews with The Frontier that keeping the amount the state is seeking from the public could be a strategy to leave more room for maneuvering should there be a settlement before the case goes to trial — especially if that settlement is for much less than what the state was pursuing.
However, if a bundle of federal lawsuits in the Northern District of Ohio that a judge hoped to settle by now is any indication of how Oklahoma’s case will go, settlement is starting to look less likely. And at the same time, Oklahoma’s lawsuit has become increasingly contentious.
One thing is clear: If Oklahoma’s case continues on its course to go to trial in May, eyes will be on the state. The case would be the first to go to trial among the hundreds of opioid lawsuits pending in state and federal courts across the country.
The lawsuit filed in Cleveland County claims Oklahoma pays millions each year for health care related to opioid dependency, including substance abuse services, “unnecessary” opioid prescriptions and criminal justice costs.
For instance, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority paid out more than $49 million for Purdue opioids prescriptions from 2007 to 2017, according to the lawsuit.
Hunter’s case alleges the companies knowingly fueled the state’s opioid crisis with an aggressive marketing campaign that made false and misleading claims about the dangers of the drugs.
Purdue Pharma, Allergan, Teva and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, who are named in the lawsuit, have denied the allegations.
More than 1,800 people died from opioid overdoses in Oklahoma between 2013 and 2016, according to the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control.
The Attorney General’s office contracted with the Whitten Barrage Law Firm to help spearhead the state’s case. The lead attorneys are Michael Burrage, a former federal judge, and Reggie Whitten, whose son died after abusing prescription drugs.
Outside attorneys Glenn Coffee, who is the former Oklahoma Senate Pro Tempore, and Brad Beckworth are also representing the state.
The attorneys’ contract stipulates they will be paid only if the state recovers damages from the opioid companies, and how much they get depends on how much the state recovers. For example, the contract allows attorneys to keep 10 percent of any amount over $500 million.
Hunter has said he hopes the funds from the suit or a settlement will be put in a trust fund similar to the state’s Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust and used to pay for addiction treatment.
The state said in a Jan. 31 filing that at least 48 million pages of evidence have been submitted in the case so far.
“The information produced in the connection with the state’s expert witnesses — and that information, alone, filled part of the courthouse, floor-to-ceiling, in boxes,” the filing states.
The case is scheduled to go to jury trial in Cleveland County District Court on May 28.
OxyContin-maker Purdue is the target of hundreds of lawsuits in more than 35 states.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed her own lawsuit in 2018, which goes into more detail about monetary damages allegedly caused by the painkillers. The lawsuit focuses only on Purdue and the family that runs it, the Sacklers.
“For example, the White House Council of Economic Advisers determined that a middle estimate of the cost of each death from opioid overdose is $9.6 million,” the complaint states. “By that methodology, the 671 deaths that the Attorney General has already identified in Massachusetts total more than $6 billion.”
More than 11,000 people have died from opioid-related overdoses in Massachusetts since 2008, the lawsuit claims.
In Ohio, a federal judge has been tasked with resolving more than 400 opioid lawsuits brought by cities, counties and American Indian tribes, including some from Oklahoma.
Though Judge Dan Aaron Polster aimed to have the bundle of lawsuits settled by now, that goal is far from being met. The trial is now set for Oct. 21.