The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Oklahoma judge refuses to delay first trial of responsibility for opioid crisis

An Oklahoma judge declined Friday to postpone the first major trial of whether drug companies bear responsibility for the opioid crisis, leaving the state and the firms on track to meet in court May 28.

Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman refused a request from the defendants — three major drug manufacturers and 10 of their subsidiaries — to put off the jury trial for 100 days.

“The wheels of justice . . . will continue to grind toward a trial date of May 28, 2019,” Balkman said after a hearing in the Norman, Okla., courtroom that lasted more than two hours.

Lawyers for the companies said they intended to appeal Balkman’s decision. In a statement, Purdue Pharma, maker of the popular painkiller OxyContin, said it was “disappointed the court has denied its motion for a continuance. The facts show clearly that the state of Oklahoma has repeatedly failed to meet its obligations to produce critical information and documents to Purdue and the other defendants in this case.”

The company accused the state’s private attorneys of “flagrantly” violating court orders to turn over the material, “which has unfairly prejudiced Purdue’s ability to adequately prepare our defenses.”

But Bradley Beckworth, a lawyer representing the state, praised the ruling and predicted that the drug companies “are going to run from this jury as long as they can.”

Oklahoma is seeking payments that could exceed $1 billion from the companies to cover the costs of coping with the drug crisis. The outcome there — whether by trial or settlement — may provide an indication of how about 1,600 other cities, counties and Native American tribes may fare against the same companies and others.

Their lawsuits have been consolidated in an enormous “multidistrict litigation” overseen by a federal judge in Cleveland. A trial involving two “bellwether” Ohio counties in that case is set for October.

Dozens of states have decided not to join that case and are suing in their own courts.

Balkman has agreed to televise the Oklahoma jury trial. He allowed media to listen to Friday’s hearing by telephone.

The defendants in the Oklahoma case contended that the state turned over 1.6 million pages of information a little more than two weeks ago. That doubled the amount of information the drug companies’ attorneys must review to prepare for a trial that is less than three months away, they said.

“The documents clearly are ones that are critical and important, and ones we should have had earlier,” Purdue attorney Eric Pinker told Balkman. “We are simply in a situation, judge, in which the size and scope of this case has outrun the pace at which the lawyers can operate.”

But lawyers for Oklahoma, which sued the companies in 2017, said both sides had long ago agreed to rolling production of documents in the huge and complex case, a process they said is continuing. They said they needed no delay despite having a smaller team of attorneys examining 80 million pages of documents from drug companies.

“They are goliath,” Reggie Whitten, an attorney for the state, told Balkman. “They have all the resources they need to handle this case.”

The state contended, as it has in previous hearings, that Purdue wants the postponement to prepare for a bankruptcy declaration that would move the case to bankruptcy court. Asked why a delay would aid that effort, Beckworth said: “There’s a lot of work to be done and a lot of individual family members to protect, or try to.” He was referring to members of the Sackler family, which owns Purdue.

A Purdue spokesman said in a statement that the company “has been and is preparing for the trial, where we will prove that we are not responsible for the opioid addiction crisis.” He added “the company is looking at all of its options, but we have made no decisions, and have not set any timetables.”

Oklahoma trial could provide first test of who will pay for the opioid crisis

As the opioid epidemic rages, the battle moves to the courthouse.

The drug industry’s triumph over the DEA