A highly-charged court proceeding on a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson is putting Oklahoma's opioid epidemic in the spotlight.
Oklahoma's civil lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, and it's subsidiary, Janssen, is being heard in a Cleveland County courtroom.
Covering the court proceedings as they unfold, the Norman Transcript reports: "State Attorney General Mike Hunter and his team assert Johnson & Johnson contributed to a public nuisance in Oklahoma and the company should pay to fix or “abate” that nuisance. That abatement could cost up to $17.5 billion over the next 30 years and, under Oklahoma statutes, Hunter’s team believes J&J should pay the whole tab. Two other groups of companies named in the lawsuit, Purdue Pharma (the maker of OxyContin) and Teva Pharmaceuticals, have settled with the state for a combined $355 million."
In an opening statement for the state, Hunter said more than 4,500 Oklahomans died in the opioid epidemic from 2007-2017 and thousands more are battling addiction, calling the epidemic the “largest manmade health crisis” in the state, according to Hunter.
Rogers County’s lawsuit
It's an epidemic that has not spared Rogers County.
Currently, while the state fights their legal battle, Rogers County is involved in a lawsuit of their own.
When the county joined the class action suit, documents filed by the Barron Law Firm and Higgins Law Firm, both of Claremore, showed exactly how relevant the issue is locally.
They wrote, "For many years, the prospect of a major dug problem infiltrating the borders of Oklahoma, let alone Rogers County, was inconceivable."
They said Rogers County is home to predominately middle class families and has a population of approximately 91,444 people.
"Still, within this modest setting rages an unexpected war between health and opioid addiction," they wrote.
"As of 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the overall prescribing rate of opioids at 66.5 prescriptions per 100 people. By contrast, the CDC shows that Rogers County's prescribing rate was 103.9 prescriptions per 100 people."
They said that Rogers County, like many small communities, "faces a long road of re-education, rehabilitation and rebuilding in the wake of what has become popularly known as the Opioid Epidemic."
The Claremore attorneys write, "Within the last 20 years, a scourge infected this country in the form of a public health epidemic caused by widespread addiction to opioids like OxyContin and Percocet."
Rogers County fell victim to pharmaceutical manufacturers and wholesaler/distributors that saturated the area with excessive amounts of dangerous and addictive prescription opioids under the guise of lawful and beneficial activity, they said.
And it didn't happen by accident.
"The opioid epidemic did not come to Rogers County by chance. Rather, opioids were intentionally pumped into the area by opioids manufacturers and distributors who engaged in targeted marketing and over-distribution in the most unsuspecting areas of the country," Barron and Higgins wrote.
They credited highly-deceptive and unfair marketing campaigns as part of the problem.
"Within the next hour, six Americans will die from an opioid overdose; two babies will be born dependent on opioids; and prescription drug manufacturers will earn over $2.7 million from the sale of their drugs," they wrote.
They said it's devastation in the name of profit.
Rogers County has incurred extreme cost in combatting, or at least responding to, this epidemic.
These costs, the attorney's claim, should be on the tab of the manufacturers and distributors, rather than on the county's taxpayers.
They further claim that the defendants, which includes Johnson & Johnson, should have known that their over-distribution of opioids into Rogers County was causing an "exceedingly high rate of illegal use, abuse, misuse and diversion of prescription opioids."
The distributors named in the lawsuit "knew or should have known that the millions of doses of highly addictive opioids they were shipping into relatively small Rogers County were far in excess of the legitimate needs for Rogers County and should have been stopped and/or investigated as suspicious orders."
They say the distributors showed a reckless disregard for the safety of Rogers County and it's residents and that the result of their actions has been catastrophic.
“The Rogers County Commissioners should be commended for having the foresight to file their own lawsuit,” said Brad Barron. “And taking steps to recover money to deal with the opioid crisis as it has impacted Rogers County.
Currently, the lawsuit Rogers County is part of is set for trial in Ohio on October 20.
“There’s some differences between the state’s case and the Rogers County case,” he explained. “Probably the biggest difference is that the Rogers County case includes more defendants than the state’s case. The state only sued manufacturers of opioids and we have sued manufacturers and distributors.”
Barron believes one of the largest advantages to a county pursuing their own case is that they do not have to depend on the state for recovery.
“The county will be able to control how that money is used with its boundaries to address the opioid problem,” he said.
Barron said the case Rogers County joined is a complicated one—but one he knew he wanted to be a part of.
“I think that for me the reason it was important was, I’m a lifelong citizen of Oklahoma. I live in a rural community and it was important for me to do everything I could to make sure that counties in northeast Oklahoma have the opportunity to have the resources to deal with the opioid crisis,” he said. “Oklahoma is a very heavily impacted state. Our state has one of the worst opioid problems in the entire country.”
Attorney Bill Higgins said in his practice he sees firsthand the impact opiods have on families and entire communities.
Barron added, “This opioid epidemic does not discriminate based on socioeconomic status or how important your job is or what you do. In fact, it seems like so many people are good, hard working people and the next thing they know they are addicted to these drugs and it’s really, really sad.”