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Opioid Case Against Johnson & Johnson Is In The Hands Of Oklahoma Judge


The first civil lawsuit to go to trial attempting to hold a company responsible for the opioid crisis wrapped up in Oklahoma yesterday. Jackie Fortier of State Impact Oklahoma has the story.

JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: The Oklahoma lawsuit originally targeted three drugmakers, but Teva and Purdue Pharma settled before the trial began on May 28. The case continued with Johnson & Johnson as the sole defendant. The state's legal team argued that the company used aggressive marketing tactics that led to thousands of overdose deaths. The trial took place over seven weeks in the town of Norman. Instead of a jury, a state judge heard the case. Attorney Brad Beckworth, in his closing arguments Monday, said opioids had flooded Norman itself and the surrounding county.


BRAD BECKWORTH: What we do have in Cleveland County is 135 prescription opioids for every adult - 135. Those didn't get here from drug cartels. They got here from one cartel, the pharmaceutical industry cartel. And the kingpin of it all is Johnson & Johnson.

FORTIER: In legal terms, Oklahoma argued the company created a public nuisance of opioid overprescribing. But Johnson & Johnson's attorney Larry Ottaway disputed the idea in his closing argument. He said doctors can read labels and warnings, and they decide who should get an opioid prescription.


LARRY OTTAWAY: The FDA label clearly set for the risk of addiction, abuse and misuse that could lead to overdose and death. Don't tell me that doctors weren't aware of the risks.

FORTIER: Earlier in the trial, the state's expert witness Dr. Andrew Kolodny testified that Johnson & Johnson did more than push its own pills. Until 2016, it also profited by manufacturing narcotic raw ingredients and then selling them to other companies, including Purdue, which makes OxyContin.


ANDREW KOLODNY: Purdue Pharma, the Sacklers have been stealing the spotlight. But Johnson & Johnson, in some ways, has been even worse.

FORTIER: Kolodny says that's why the company downplayed the risks to doctors of opioids in general, knowing that almost any opioid prescription would benefit its bottom line. Some of the trial's most dramatic moments came when a Johnson & Johnson regional business director, Kimberly Deem-Eshleman, took the stand. Here's Brad Beckworth questioning her.


BECKWORTH: One pill can kill, right?


BECKWORTH: You've known that since the beginning.

DEEM-ESHLEMAN: There is an abuse potential.

BECKWORTH: And there's a death potential, too.

DEEM-ESHLEMAN: There is, if used inappropriately.

KING: The trial also focused on the role of drug sales representatives. Drue Diesselhorst was one of the busiest that Johnson & Johnson employed in Oklahoma. Records showed that she kept visiting doctors who had been disciplined by the state for overprescribing and doctors who had patients die of overdoses. But Diesselhorst testified that she didn't know about the deaths and was never instructed to stop targeting those high-prescribing physicians.


DRUE DIESSELHORST: My job was to be a sales rep. My job was not to figure out the red flags.

FORTIER: The legal framework used in this case, that of a public nuisance, is not new. It was used in previous lawsuits involving tobacco, guns and lead paint, though with varying results. But it's the first time public nuisance is being tried with opioids. The judge in Oklahoma is expected to announce a verdict in a few weeks. The state is asking for more than $17 billion.

For NPR News, I'm Jackie Fortier in Norman, Okla.

KING: And that story comes from a reporting partnership between NPR, State Impact Oklahoma and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Fortier