An Oklahoma judge ruled Friday that a historic opioid trial against several major pharmaceutical companies will begin May 28, rejecting their motion to delay the trial.
In issuing his decision, Cleveland County District Court Judge Thad Balkman said the matter is of huge public importance and should move forward in a timely fashion.
The trial is set to be the first in the nation to go before a jury that could determine pharmaceutical companies’ role in the nation’s opioid epidemic and whether Big Pharma should pay for it. The judge has said cameras will be allowed in the courtroom — a decision the drugmakers fought.
The suit was brought by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter against some of the nation’s leading makers of opioid pain medications, alleging that deceptive marketing over the past decade fueled the epidemic in the state. Hunter has said the defendants — Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Allergan and others — deceived the public into believing that opioids were safe for extended use.
The companies have maintained in court filings that their marketing was appropriate.
The drugmakers had sought a 100-day postponement of the trial, saying that the state had handed over a “massive 11th-hour production” of evidence and that more time was needed to go through the material. They said the state had produced 1.6 million pages of documents, threatening the “fairness and ultimate result of any trial.”
“The State has been stonewalling discovery for much of the last year,” Purdue attorneys wrote in one filing.
The attorney general countered that the defendants were getting “desperate” and grasping “at whatever straws they can find.”
“The State did not manufacture opioids. The State did not target veterans. The State did not target legislators. The State did not target doctors,” Hunter wrote in a court filing. “The defendants did all that.”
Balkman had also rejected previous attempts by the drugmakers to delay the start of the trial.
Hunter applauded the judge’s decision Friday, saying he was ready to bring the case before a jury. “We remain steadfast in our mission to ending this nightmarish epidemic and the ravages the opioid epidemic has left in its wake in Oklahoma.”
A total of 36 states have filed cases against pharmaceutical companies in state courts. The other 14 states are investigating whether to bring suits, as well.
The Oklahoma case will be the first to reach trial, with legal observers saying it will be closely watched for precedent.
In the past three years, nearly 3,000 people have died of overdose deaths in Oklahoma and more than 1,300 newborns have tested positive for exposure to opioids, according to the attorney general’s office.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 47,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses in 2017.