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Oklahoma drops some claims against opioid manufacturers

Tim Talley, Associated Press

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter answers questions during a news conference Monday, April 1, 2019, in Oklahoma City. A $270 million settlement between the state of Oklahoma and the maker of OxyContin received high praise last week as an innovative way to help combat opioid addiction. Hunter is now facing bipartisan backlash from Oklahoma lawmakers who say he overstepped his authority and circumvented their role. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- A week after reaching a $270 million settlement with the maker of OxyContin, Oklahoma's attorney general Thursday dropped some claims in its lawsuit against other drugmakers in an effort to force them to pay the cost of the nation's deadly opioid crisis.

Attorney General Mike Hunter's office filed a motion that dismisses claims of fraud and deceit, unjust enrichment and violations of the state's Medicaid laws against about a dozen drugmakers. Hunter said dismissing those claims does not reduce the amount of damages the state is seeking.

Hunter's office will continue to pursue allegations that the companies created a public nuisance, which he says is the most important allegation against the drugmakers.

"We're going to be ready for trial, and we're going to hold these defendants responsible for the damage they've done to the state and its citizens," Hunter said.

Opioids, including heroin and prescription drugs, were a factor in a record 48,000 deaths across the U.S. in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Oklahoma recorded about 400 opioid deaths that year.

Public nuisance claims are included in many governments' cases against drugmakers, said attorney Ryan Duplechin, who works for the Montgomery, Alabama-based Beasley Allen. The law firm is representing Alabama and Georgia in national opioid litigation and is not affiliated with Oklahoma's lawsuit.

Governments are using public nuisance claims to try to recover the cost of deaths, treatment and crime linked to opioid abuse, Allen said. Lawyers representing similar cases are closely watching Oklahoma's.

"If there's a plaintiff's verdict in one case, then that drives up the value of all the other cases," he said.

Sabrina Strong, an attorney for Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries, which are among the companies being sued, said in a statement that dismissal of the claims shows they were groundless.

"We will continue to defend against the remaining baseless and unsubstantiated allegations," Strong said. Trial of the state's lawsuit is scheduled to begin on May 28 in Norman, about 17 miles (27 kilometers) south of Oklahoma City.

Other defendants in the case include Dublin, Ireland-based Allergan and New Jersey-based Teva Pharmaceuticals USA.

By dismissing all but the public nuisance claim, Hunter said the state's motion will result in a bench trial before a judge instead of a jury. The companies have until Tuesday to respond to the state's motion.

Hunter said trying the case before a judge and not a jury should reduce the number of pretrial motions filed by the companies and give both sides more time to prepare for trial.

"We've got a handful of lawyers and they've got hundreds, so it was an important strategic decision with regard to preparing for trial," Hunter said.

Hunter's office settled allegations against drugmaker Purdue Pharma for $270 million on March 26 in the first such agreement following a wave of nearly 2,000 lawsuits against the company that had threatened to push it into bankruptcy.

Nearly $200 million will go toward establishing a National Center for Addiction Studies and Treatment at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa, while local governments will get $12.5 million.

Some Oklahoma lawmakers allege Hunter violated a state law that requires him to place settlement money received by his office into the state treasury. But Hunter said the law doesn't apply because his office never technically received the settlement money, per Purdue Pharma's wishes.

In settling, Stamford, Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma denied any wrongdoing in connection with what Hunter called "this nightmarish epidemic" and "the worst public health crisis in our state and nation we've ever seen."

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This version of the story corrects the city in Alabama to Montgomery in the 6th paragraph.

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Associated Press writers Sean Murphy and Adam Kealoha Causey in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.