Expert witness breaks down in tears during Oklahoma opioid trial

Posted at 5:36 PM, Jun 26, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-26 20:12:23-04

The state of Oklahoma on Wednesday wrapped up most of its case against Johnson & Johnson, in a historic trial that is testing whether a state can make a pharmaceutical company pay for the opioid epidemic impacting its residents.

After 22 days, the state’s case came close to concluding with fiery and emotional testimony from Oklahoma mental health commissioner Terri White, who said Johnson & Johnson’s claim it bears zero responsibility for the state’s opioid crisis “offends my decency.”

White was to be the state’s final witness, but the state at the last minute asked Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman if one final witness, currently on vacation, could be called to testify at a later date. The judge granted the request “to call her out of turn,” but said Johnson & Johnson will now begin its defense. The state would officially rest its case once the witness returns and testifies, Balkman said.

Under cross examination Wednesday, White blasted Johnson & Johnson, Janssen and its other subsidiaries for denying any wrongdoing when, she said, the company supplied more than 50% of active ingredients for a host of opioid painkillers, including OxyContin.

“I feel like you all have repeatedly, through this trial, tried to downplay your role in all of the other products that were opioid products for which you provided the ingredients,” White said. “And I absolutely think that cannot go unnoticed. That is part of the story, but make no mistake I do believe Johnson & Johnson and Janssen oversupplied their own products as well.”

She added: “It’s absolutely about Janssen’s drugs and the drugs that Janssen provided the ingredients to make — and if I haven’t made that clear, please let me be very clear about that.”

In another dramatic moment, White beat back at defendant attorney Steve Brody whenever she felt he was putting words in her mouth.

“I’m not sure if I’m not communicating clearly or if you’re not understanding what I’m saying, but your summaries of what I’m saying are not correct,” White said.

By the end of her testimony, White was in tears as Brody asked if the state bore any responsibility for the opioid epidemic. Her voice grew animated, heated even, as she said Johnson & Johnson “unleashed a series of bombs” across the country. Johnson & Johnson, she said, pushed opioids into Oklahoma, resulting in the overdose deaths of more than 6,100, “without telling us you were going to do this, without you still accepting any responsibility today.”

“We are the only reason, the only reason, that lives are being saved in the state — (then) you say to us … ‘You didn’t build bomb shelters fast enough. You didn’t purchase enough bullet proof vests. You couldn’t run from us fast enough.’ No, I do not agree with that.

Brody: “Not even one percent?”

“Not one percent,” snapped White.

Oklahoma 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. The trial now moves to the defense phase, which is expected to last several weeks.

“For four weeks, we have heard the state make vague, one-size-fits-all claims without any evidence that the company caused opioid abuse or misuse in Oklahoma,” Johnson & Johnson attorney John Sparks said in a prepared statement. “Facts matter, and as we have said from the beginning and look forward to showing again in our case, the company’s marketing was squarely within the regulations, and it did everything a responsible manufacturer and seller of opioid pain medications should do.”

In her testimony, White said it was clear by 2008 that there was an oversupply of prescription opioids in Oklahoma, and that the state hopes to get prescription opioids back to levels like those before 1996, when drugmakers flooded the market with opioids.

Pressed about the number of prescriptions that would constitute an acceptable supply of opioids, White said she wasn’t sure. “I feel like I’ve said this multiple times: I can’t tell you the exact number,” she said.

But White said one thing was sure: “We have too many opioid prescriptions.”

A day earlier, on Tuesday, White ripped into Johnson & Johnson, saying its claim that it bears zero responsibility for the 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,” White said Tuesday. “That offends my decency.”

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.

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.

The state of Oklahoma reached settlements with two other opioid drugmakers: a $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, and an $85 million settlement with Teva Pharmaceuticals, one of the world’s largest makers of generic drugs.