Tonya Ratcliff will never forget the “gut wrenching sound of the screaming” 12 years ago as she held a baby in her arms that was suffering from opioid withdrawal.

“I left the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) crying,” said Ratcliff, an experienced foster parent who testified on the 17th day of testimony in a landmark trial brought by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter against Johnson & Johnson. Hunter is seeking compensation for the company’s role in fueling the opioid epidemic, which caused the state to experience overdose deaths, economic damages, and babies born addicted to opioids.

Ratcliff said that caring for a newborn withdrawing from opioids is “hell on earth,” and “that’s being polite about it.”

“It’s terrifying. These babies are shaking in your arms,” she said. Ratcliff ended up adopting that baby. She is now a mother of two biological children and eight adopted children, and provides foster care for another three children.

The first trial to hold drug companies accountable began last month. The lawsuit originally named Johnson & Johnson along with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals. Purdue agreed to pay $270 million in March to settle charges it faced. Teva agreed to pay $85 million two days before the trial began. Johnson & Johnson opted to go to trial and let the jury decide its fate.

Opioid abuse has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. According to the Department of Health & Human Services, 12.5 million people misused prescription opioids and 33,091 Americans died from opioid overdose in 2015 alone. These medications provide important pain relief for many. However, over the years, drug companies inflated the effectiveness of delayed-release medications like OxyContin and downplayed their addictive properties, creating conditions ripe for abuse.

We are investigating cases involving opioid-related deaths and overdose requiring hospitalization, as well as cases involving treatment for addiction to prescription opioids. Contact Melissa Prickett, Roger Smith or Liz Eiland in our Mass Torts Section to discuss a potential claim.

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