The first civil trial of a pharmaceutical manufacturer for its role in the opioid epidemic kicked off May 28 in the District Court of Cleveland County, Oklahoma. The Defendant, Johnson & Johnson (J&J), is the manufacturer of Duragesic (fentanyl) and Nucynta (tapentadol). The State of Oklahoma is not only trying to make a case against J&J for its marketing of these two brand name opioids, but for its role through a former subsidiary, Noramco, in supplying other opioid manufacturers with the Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API), derived from opioid poppies, for their opioids. This tactic makes it clearer why Oklahoma named J&J in its suit, as the company’s market share for drugs it manufactured for itself was relatively small in the state.

The State put on its last witness June 25. Evidence presented at trial suggests that Noramco, through its subsidiary, Tasmanian Alkaloids, supplied a large portion of thebaine, one of the three primary opium alkaloids, from its proprietary opium poppy strains. Noramco would, in turn, convert the thebaine into oxycodone and hydrocodone, and sell the raw API to manufacturers such as Purdue Pharma. This explains why J&J, which doesn’t itself possess a large portion of the opioid market, spent so much money on unbranded marketing of opioids.

The bulk of the time spent at trial thus far has been with J&J’s corporate representative, Kimberly Deem-Eshleman, who spent three days on the stand and the State’s expert Dr. Andrew Kolodny, who spent five days. Dr. Kolodny testified on a number of subjects, including the history of the opioid crisis and the marketing efforts of Johnson & Johnson and other opioid manufacturers.

The State also put on emotional testimony of individuals affected by the opioid crisis, including those that have lost loved ones because of the addictive and deadly properties of opioids, and those who themselves battled addiction and lost everything.

Testimony was also taken from the State medical examiner, who went over, in heart-wrenching detail, narratives of several documented opioid overdose deaths his office investigated over the years. Testimony has also focused on the State’s abatement plan to stop the opioid crises, including training for medical students in the delivery of buprenorphine, a common drug in medication-assisted treatment of opioid addiction, and counter-detailing opioids, that is, engaging with active prescribers to reeducate them on the proper prescribing of opioids. The total abatement program was stated to cost $12 billion over 20 years. The trial, at press time, was in its fourth week and is expected to last two to three months.

Beasley Allen has an Opioid Litigation Team, which includes these lawyers: Rhon Jones, Parker Miller, Ryan Kral, Rick Stratton, Will Sutton and Jeff Price. This team represents the State of Alabama, the State of Georgia, and numerous local governments, as well as other entities in opioid multdistrict litigation (MDL). They also handle individual claims on behalf of victims.

This story appears in the July issue of The Jere Beasley Report. For more like it, or to subscribe, visit the Report online.

Jere Beasley

Jere Beasley, the founding member of Beasley Allen Law Firm, has practiced law as an advocate for victims of wrongdoing since 1962. He was the lead Beasley Allen attorney in the record $11.9 billion award against ExxonMobil Corp. on behalf of the state of Alabama.

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