County officials hopeful Oklahoma ruling bodes well for opioid lawsuits

County officials are hopeful that a landmark ruling last week will bode well for their own lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors.

On Monday a judge in Oklahoma ordered Johnson & Johnson, one of the world's largest health care companies, to pay that state $572 million.

It's far less than the $17 billion that the state was asking for, amounting to one year of abatement rather than 20. State court Judge Thad Balkman ruled that Oklahoma had proved the company launched a misleading marketing campaign to convince the public that opioids posed little addiction risk in treating a range of chronic pain. Johnson & Johnson supplied a reported 60 percent of the opiate ingredients used for opioids like oxycodone.

Judge Balkman wrote that the $572 million should go toward addiction treatment and overdose prevention services, programs for managing pain without opioids and other resources.

Johnson & Johnson plans to appeal the ruling, which they say disregards the company's compliance with federal and state laws.

More than 2,000 cases have been brought by state and local municipalities against drugmakers, retail pharmacy chains and distributors. Pulaski County Fiscal Court voted to file suit in federal court two years ago, a case that transferred to the Northern Ohio District in December 2017 as part of a consolidation.

Oklahoma's case was the first to go to trial and became focused on Johnson & Johnson after two other drugmakers settled their claims. The seven-week trial was followed closely for what might happen in other pending cases. The next trial -- involving two "bellweather" counties (Cuyahoga and Summit) -- is set to get underway next month in the same Cleveland court where Pulaski's case is waiting before U.S. District Judge Dan Polster.

"I guess the class action suit we are involved in will follow suit soon," Pulaski County Judge-Executive Steve Kelley said. "Our families are definitely victims. Our community, our region, and our world have been affected. While all the blame cannot rest solely on the shoulders of the manufacturers, a lion's share must be. There are certainly damages that require rectification."

"This is a favorable precedent for the other plaintiffs," County Attorney Martin Hatfield added. "For all intents and purposes, it's a win whether you're talking about a state suing or a municipality suing through a private attorney."

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