By Nate Raymond
(Reuters) – Oklahoma’s attorney general on Thursday had dropped all but a single claim against Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd in a closely watched lawsuit alleging the drugmakers helped fuel the U.S. opioid epidemic.
The move by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter came ahead of an upcoming May 28 trial, the first in the United States to result from roughly 2,000 lawsuits seeking to hold manufacturers of painkillers responsible for contributing to the epidemic.
Opioids were involved in a record 47,600 overdose deaths in 2017 in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hunter dropped the claims after announcing last week that OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP had along with the wealthy Sackler family who own it reached a $270 million settlement.
The 2017 lawsuit accused the three companies of engaging in deceptive marketing that downplayed the addiction risk from opioids while overstating their benefits. The Sacklers were not defendants in the case. The companies deny wrongdoing.
Hunter said he would continue to bring a public nuisance claim against J&J and Teva but was dropping five other claims, including that they violated the Oklahoma Medicaid False Claims Act.
Hunter said dropping those claims would not impact the amount of damages the state is seeking. Hunter had been asking for more than $20 billion before Purdue’s settlement.
J&J in a statement said the state’s decision to drop most of its claims “underscores their lack of merit.” It said the evidence at trial will show that the company appropriately marketed its pain medications.
Teva did not respond to a request for comment.
Hunter said the decision to refocus the case around the single claim that the companies caused a public nuisance that needs remediated will obviate efforts by the companies to delay the upcoming trial.
It will also transform what was to be a televised jury trial into a non-jury one in which a state court judge will decide the case, Hunter said.
“The team and I remain laser focused on the goal we set since filing this lawsuit: holding those responsible for creating this crisis accountable and bring an end to the opioid epidemic in Oklahoma,” Hunter said.
More than 1,600 other opioid-related lawsuits are consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio, who has pushed for a settlement ahead of the trial before him in October. Other cases, including Oklahoma’s, are pending in state courts.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Noeleen Walder and James Dalgleish)