The final witness for the state of Oklahoma on Tuesday said Johnson & Johnson’s claims that the company bears zero responsibility for the state’s opioid epidemic are “absolutely incorrect” and “is one of the most difficult things to swallow.”
“To hear them say that they bear zero responsibility, it’s painful,” said Terri White, the Oklahoma mental health commissioner. “That offends my decency.”
White offered some of the most dramatic testimony in the weekslong trial, shredding Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries for distancing themselves from the opioid epidemic.
At times, White glanced across the courtroom at Kimberly Deem-Eshleman, the Johnson & Johnson representative who testified earlier in the trial that the company should not be held accountable because it didn’t do anything wrong.
At another point, White broke down in tears when a video montage was played of Austin Box, a linebacker from the University of Oklahoma who died of an overdose. “Austin is one of the reasons I fight every single day,” she said.
Attorney General Mike Hunter has accused Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries of creating a public nuisance for its alleged role in the opioid crisis, costing the state billions of dollars and destroying thousands of lives.
Johnson & Johnson has denied any wrongdoing, accusing the state of being overzealous in its pursuit of the company while demanding Johnson & Johnson pay for services it says are already provided by the federal government.
On the stand, White blasted Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries for attempting to “downplay their role in the opioid crisis by trying to mislead and focus the court on fentanyl only.”
“There are several things that I found really offensive and misleading in this trial, but this is one of the worst,” she said.
White said Noramco — a company previously owned by Johnson & Johnson — was the top supplier for the ingredients in oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine and morphine, supplying 50 to 65% of the active ingredients in those opioid prescription painkillers.
“They unleashed a series of bombs on the United States of America, and those bombs hit squarely — squarely — on the middle of our country in Oklahoma,” she said. “When you prey on a state that is vulnerable to addiction, that offends my decency.”
She said 6,137 Oklahomans died from 2000 to 2017 as a result of a prescription drug overdose. The state cannot say how many of those deaths were directly attributable to Johnson & Johnson — a fact the company’s lawyers repeatedly point out.
“They’re inferring because we can only show that they killed some of those Oklahomans, even though they provided the ingredients that killed many more, … they should be able to walk away scot-free,” White said.
“That’s not right. That’s not just. And it’s insulting.”
White was the chief architect for the state’s $17 billion abatement plan — the state’s 30-year proposal on how to get out of the opioid epidemic. She said the plan will work if implemented and is “absolutely necessary and reasonable.”
“If we do not abate it, more Oklahomans will die,” she said.
Asked if the health of Oklahomans had been affected by the crisis, White said, “When you talk about injuring the health and safety of Oklahomans, turning on the addiction circuitry in someone’s brain and creating a lifelong disease … is certainly an injury.”
“When you use the word ‘danger’ of the health and safety of Oklahomans, killing 6,137 Oklahomans absolutely endangers their health and safety.”
At one point, White said, “I keep going back to hear them say they have zero percent responsibility for the opioid crisis.”
She then added that is “one of the most difficult things to swallow.”
The trial is the first in the nation in which a state is seeking to hold an opioid maker accountable for its alleged role in the crisis.
Johnson & Johnson attorney John Sparks has said the state “ignores basic facts” and that the company acted appropriately.
“The evidence remains that Johnson & Johnson and its former subsidiaries appropriately and responsibly met all laws and regulations on the manufacturing, sale and distribution of active pharmaceutical ingredients and pharmaceutical products and did everything you’d expect a responsible company to do,” Sparks said previously.
Once White is finished being cross-examined, Johnson & Johnson will begin its defense, which is expected to last several weeks.
Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman on Monday approved an $85 million settlement between Teva Pharmaceuticals and the state of Oklahoma. The state had already reached a separate $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin.