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Oklahoma judge to rule in $17 billion opioid lawsuit against J&J

Nate Raymond

Aug 26 (Reuters) - An Oklahoma judge on Monday will decide whether Johnson & Johnson should be held liable in a $17 billion lawsuit alleging the drugmaker's marketing practices fueled the opioid epidemic by causing a flood of painkillers in the market.

The case by Oklahoma Attorney General Attorney General Mike Hunter was the first to go to trial out of thousands of cases brought by state and local governments against opioid manufacturers and distributors.

Judge Thad Balkman, of Cleveland County District Court in Norman, Oklahoma, is scheduled to announce his decision from the bench at 4 p.m. EDT.

The litigation is being closely watched by plaintiffs in about 2,000 opioid lawsuits pending before a federal judge in Ohio who has been pushing for a settlement ahead of an October trial.

Opioids were involved in almost 400,000 overdose deaths from 1999 to 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 2000, some 6,000 Oklahomans have died from opioid overdoses, according to the states lawyers.

During a seven-week bench trial, lawyers for the state of Oklahoma argued that J&J carried out a years-long marketing campaign that minimized the addictive painkillers' risks and promoted their benefits.

The state's lawyers called J&J an opioid "kingpin" and argued that its marketing efforts created a public nuisance as doctors over-prescribed the drugs, leading to a surge in overdose deaths in Oklahoma.

J&J has denied wrongdoing. The drugmaker in court has said its marketing claims had scientific support and that its painkillers, Duragesic and Nucynta, made up a tiny fraction of opioids prescribed in Oklahoma.

Lawyers for New Jersey-based J&J argued in court papers that the state's case rests on a "radical" interpretation of the state's public nuisance law.

Hunter, the attorney general, is seeking to make J&J pay more than $17 billion to help the state address the epidemic for the next 30 years through addiction treatment and prevention programs.

The trial came after Oklahoma resolved claims against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP in March for $270 million and against Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd in May for $85 million, leaving only J&J as a defendant.

Some plaintiffs' lawyers have compared the opioid cases to litigation by states against the tobacco industry that led to a $246 billion settlement in 1998. (Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston Editing by Noeleen Walder and Leslie Adler)