OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma taxpayers could owe outside attorneys as much as $58 million if the state’s recent multi-million dollar verdict against opioid manufacturer Johnson & Johnson is upheld on appeal, according to legal contracts obtained by CNHI Oklahoma.
A Cleveland County district judge, meanwhile, has given state leaders the green light to pay the tab using a portion of last month’s $572.1 million award that’s supposed to help fix the state’s opioid epidemic.
Of that award, Texas-based law firm Nix Patterson stands to receive more than $36.5 million. Oklahoma City-based law firm of Whitten Burrage would receive about $21.3 million, according to the contracts released by the Attorney General’s Office.
In total, all the outside attorneys who handled Oklahoma’s opioid lawsuits could pocket a combined $130.75 million, according to state records. That total includes $60 million in attorney fees as part of the $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. It also includes $12.75 million from the $85 million settlement with Israel-based Teva Pharmaceutical.
“No fees for outside counsel will be paid until there is a final judgment,” said Alex Gerszewski, a spokesman for Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, in a statement. “A lot can happen in the appeals process. Any number we give right now would be speculation.”
Gerszewski said the decision to retain outside counsel was based on a number of factors, but it was important to have the right expertise and experience.
He said the outside attorneys expended their own resources for travel and research. Given the time and expense, the Attorney General’s Office did not have the monetary resources or manpower to devote to opioid litigation given all their other responsibilities, he said.
Gerszewski said attorney fees and expenses amounted to about 21 percent of the $355 million settlements.
“The complexity of this case and the perceived power and invincibility of the defendants had to be fearlessly attacked by a talented and indefatigable team of lawyers,” Hunter said in a statement.
Last month, District Judge Thad Balkman found Johnson & Johnson created a public nuisance by launching a misleading marketing campaign that contributed to an opioid epidemic in the state. He ordered the New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company and its subsidiary to pay $572.1 million.
The amount was well short of the $17.5 billion state leaders were seeking to abate the crisis over 30 years. In his ruling, Balkman said the state failed to prove the amount of time and costs necessary to fix the problem beyond one year.
The company has denied wrongdoing and vowed to appeal.
State Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, said the opioid litigation payments to private attorneys seemed high. He said the funds could have paid for teacher raises for a year or half of the ongoing state Capitol renovation.
“That would have be a huge amount of money,” he said. “There’s plenty of other ways that money could have been spent.”
Dahm authored legislation several years ago that would have capped the amount outside attorneys could collect. The measure went nowhere after Dahm said he was assured the Attorney General’s Office had policies in place to prevent large payouts.
But, if his legislation had passed, Dahm said the opioid litigation fees would have benefited Oklahomans, not a few lawyers and law firms.
“I’m guessing we’ll see some similar legislation to what I filed previously now that this has taken place,” he said.
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.