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Oklahoma makes final bid to hold J&J responsible for opioid epidemic

By Nate Raymond
FILE PHOTO: The Johnson & Johnson logo is displayed on a screen on the floor of the NYSE in New York

By Nate Raymond

(Reuters) - Oklahoma's attorney general on Wednesday made his final bid to force Johnson & Johnson <JNJ.N> to pay $17 billion for its part in fuelling the opioid epidemic, saying the drugmaker's "egregious" marketing caused an oversupply of addictive drugs and overdose deaths.

Attorney General Mike Hunter in a brief filed in a state court in Norman, Oklahoma, argued that evidence presented during the first trial nationally in litigation over the epidemic showed J&J was "at the root of this crisis."

The state's lawyers said evidence presented during the seven-week trial that began in May showed J&J's decades-long marketing campaign convinced doctors and the public that opioids could be a "go-to, first-line treatment for everything from headaches to sprained ankles."

They said J&J and its subsidiaries "abandoned all standards of responsible conduct in their blind resolve to make money from their drugs," creating a public nuisance in the form of an opioid crisis that since 2000 has killed 6,000 Oklahomans.

Opioids were involved in almost 400,000 overdose deaths from 1999 to 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

J&J countered in its own brief that while opioid abuse is a real problem, its painkillers, Duragesic and Nucynta, were a tiny fraction of all opioids prescribed in Oklahoma. It also said its marketing claims had scientific support.

New Jersey-based J&J's lawyers also wrote that the state's case rested on "radical theories" unmoored from more than a century of court cases interpreting the state's public nuisance law, which it said only applies to property disputes.

But the state's lawyers said applying the state's public nuisance statute to the epidemic was not an unprecedented expansion of the law.

"While this opioid crisis is unprecedented, this exercise of the State's power is not," the state's lawyers wrote.

The briefs marked the final arguments both sides would make to Judge Thad Balkman, who is expected to rule next month.

The case is one of around 2,000 lawsuits filed nationally by states, counties and cities seeking to hold drug companies responsible for the opioid epidemic.

The Oklahoma case is being closely watched by plaintiffs in other opioid lawsuits, particularly in 1,900 cases pending before a federal judge in Ohio who has been pushing for a settlement ahead of an October trial.

OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd <TEVA.TA> were originally also defendants in the case. Purdue reached a $270 million settlement with Oklahoma in March and Teva settled for $85 million in May. Both deny wrongdoing.

(The story refiles to correct 10th paragraph to say ruling is expected next month)


(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Bill Berkrot)