Teva to settle Oklahoma opioid case for $85M

Jef Feeley and Anders Melin

Norman, Okla. – One of the drugmakers named in Oklahoma’s lawsuit over the opioid crisis has agreed to a settlement in which it will pay the state $85 million.

Israeli-owned Teva Pharmaceuticals and Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter both announced the settlement Sunday in separate statements. Teva, its related affiliates and Johnson & Johnson and several of its subsidiaries were set to go to trial Tuesday in Norman.

Hunter said the case against Johnson & Johnson will proceed on schedule.

He also said the funds from the settlement with Teva will be used to fight the opioid crisis in Oklahoma.

Teva did not admit any wrongdoing under the settlement. Earlier this year, Oklahoma settled with OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma for $270 million.

Teva’s move leaves Johnson & Johnson in the uncomfortable position of being Oklahoma’s sole target.

Oklahoma is seeking at least $10 billion in damages and penalties for current and future outlays tied to the opioid epidemic. The trial is slated to be the first test of public-nuisance laws against opioid manufacturers and distributors. At least 42 states and more than 1,900 municipalities also have sued companies in the industry, demanding billions of dollars in damages.

J&J – known for being loath to settle mass-tort litigation at the early stages – so far hasn’t cut an out-of-court deal to end the case. Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter has tagged the company as the “kingpin” of the opioid crisis because it once sold its own version of opioid painkillers as well as the active ingredient.

“J&J is probably feeling pretty lonely right now as the Oklahoma case gets ready to go,” said Jean Eggen, a law professor at Widener University’s Delaware Law School who teaches about mass torts. “Being left as the only defendant in one of these high-profile cases is a really ugly position to be in.”

Andrew Wheatley, a spokesman for J&J and its Janssen unit, said Sunday the drugmaker was ready to defend itself at trial from Oklahoma’s claims that its painkillers caused a public nuisance in the state. Hunter contends J&J’s illegal marketing created a nuisance that forced the state to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to address the societal fall-out of opioid-related overdoses and addictions.

“We disagree with the state’s overly expansive theories of public nuisance law, which should not apply in this situation,” Wheatley said in an emailed statement. “At the same time, as with all litigation, if an appropriate resolution is possible that avoids the expense and uncertainty of a trial, we are always open to that option.”

Hunter said in a statement it would take two weeks to finalize Teva’s settlement, and the $85 million would be used to address the costs of the state’s “opioid crisis.”

Officials of Petach Tikva, Israel-based Teva said they didn’t admit to any wrongdoing in connection with the settlement and only resolved the case out of a desire to help “people who have suffered from abuse of opioids and to help stop the effects of the opioid crisis.”

Teva officials also may have been concerned they could be left on the hook for a multi-billion-dollar judgment, along with J&J, once Judge Thad Balkman rules in the case, Eggen said. Balkman is hearing the case without a jury.

“There’s a lot of pressure on these companies right now, litigation pressure, government pressure and political pressure,” Eggen said.

There may be other settlements later this year as the focus on opioid litigation shifts to Cleveland, where a federal judge has set two test trials for October to allow juries to consider public-nuisance claims over drug-marketing campaigns, said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who teaches as product-liability cases.

Associated Press contributed.