Part of money from state’s opioid lawsuit would go to local governments, Attorney General says

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Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter at the April 10, 2018, Indian Nation Council of Governments meeting in Tulsa. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said Tuesday he plans to form a committee of city, town and county government representatives to help determine how any settlement or award money from the state’s lawsuit against opioid manufacturers would be allocated.

Hunter, who spoke at the Indian Nations Council of Governments’ monthly meeting in Tulsa, said the state plans to seek billions of dollars in damages from more than a dozen pharmaceutical companies that manufactured opioid prescription drugs.

Hunter filed a lawsuit against the companies — which include pharmaceutical giants Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson and Janssen Pharmaceuticals — in June last year, accusing the corporations of purposefully misleading and misinforming doctors about the risks associated with prescribing the drugs through multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns, thereby contributing to opioid addiction and overdoses in the state.

“We’re confident based on our research that manufacturers perpetuated a multi-decade, defrauding — a brainwashing if you will — of prescribers,” Hunter told the council. “It was diabolical, it was systematic, but it was also very effective.”

Hunter said his office has been building the framework of a “damage model” — which would be used to calculate the extent and amount of damages the companies would be liable for, if the case is decided in the state’s favor — and his office plans to reach out to local governments in Oklahoma to form a committee that would help with that determination.

Hunter said he anticipates that should the case be decided in the state’s favor or settled, some of the money from the lawsuit would be put into a trust fund similar to the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, but other money would be sent to local governments to compensate them for the damages caused by opioid drugs.

“We want to hold these companies accountable for what they’ve done to the state, for what they’ve cost taxpayers in terms of corrections, in terms of health care, in terms of law enforcement,” Hunter told the group. “We think the number is in the billions.”

Part of what the proposed committee of local government representatives would be tasked with, Hunter said, would be to provide data and help determine how much of that money would flow back to the state’s political subdivisions, he said.

“Parallel to that (a state trust fund), I see a multi-year revenue stream that would be allocated between the state and the state’s governmental subdivisions with some formula,” Hunter said. “This committee allows governmental subdivisions to have a seat at the table and to play a role in developing a settlement model to ensure that their interests get taken into account.”

Some cities and counties are weighing their options, however. Several have been approached by private law firms asking them to consider filing their own individual lawsuits against opioid manufacturers separate from the state’s lawsuit.

“Tulsa County is being bombarded with local law firms, New York law firms,” said Karen Keith, Tulsa County commissioner and INCOG board chairwoman. “We’ve got several coming at us saying ‘we want you to look at doing your own thing.’”

Hunter told the group he did not want to discourage cities, towns and counties from filing their own lawsuits, but asked that they confer with his office before making a final decision.

“You should certainly review presentations you receive from outside counsel,” Hunter said. “The only thing I would try to suggest strongly is that at the same time you discuss the pros and cons with our lead counsel.”

Cities or counties that do choose to file lawsuits against the companies will likely have those lawsuits end up in federal court and folded into multi-district litigation, Hunter said, “so ability to control lawsuit would be curtailed because would be in with numerous other subdivisions.”

“I want these entities to make a decision based on the empirics of pros and cons, the choices they have,” Hunter said. “We think they’re in a better position in our lawsuit. We don’t propose to be negative about other firms presenting on the issue of being retained. We think there are enough benefits to staying with us.”

The state’s lawsuit against the opioid manufacturers is the first in the nation to have a trial date and the first in which discovery has begun, Hunter told the group. The case is slated for jury trial on May 28, 2019.

“I’m optimistic we’re going to win this lawsuit or I wouldn’t be here today,” Hunter said.

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Clifton Adcock

Senior Staff Writer

A veteran investigative reporter who has covered eastern Oklahoma for more than 15 years, Clifton joined The Frontier in April 2017. A native of southeastern Oklahoma, he has covered numerous issues from criminal justice to politics for publications including the Tulsa World, the Oklahoma Gazette, and Oklahoma Watch. Clifton holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma. Clifton can be reached at clifton@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @cliftonhowze
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