Oklahoma Supreme Court rejects immediate opioid trial delay

The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a request by drugmakers to immediately postpone the start of what is expected to be the first state trial in lawsuits accusing the companies of fueling an opioid epidemic.

The court instead set a March 20 hearing on whether to grant a 100-day postponement of the civil trial set to start May 28 in Cleveland County. A judge there had previously denied the request.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter sued 13 opioid manufacturers in 2017, alleging they fraudulently engaged in marketing campaigns that led to thousands of overdose addictions and deaths. Several states have filed similar lawsuits, but Oklahoma's is expected to be the first to go to trial.

In a statement, Hunter said the ruling, handed down by Chief Justice Noma Gurich, "has kept our case on track." The attorney general said attorneys for the state have met court-mandated deadlines in the complex case but that the companies, "with hundreds of attorneys," have consistently sought delays.

"Their actions should not be rewarded with more time to comply with court orders," Hunter said. "Every day the trial is delayed, we will lose more Oklahomans to prescription opioid overdoses."

The drugmakers have said they need more time to analyze more than a million documents of evidence they received from the attorney general last month, but the state's attorneys say the companies' allegations are "false and misleading."

Sandy Coats, an attorney for one of the drugmakers, Purdue Pharma Inc., declined comment on the ruling.

Purdue Pharma said Wednesday that it has made billions of dollars selling the prescription painkiller OxyContin but that is considering bankruptcy among its legal options, potentially upending hundreds of lawsuits including Oklahoma's.

Among other things, Oklahoma's lawsuit seeks an injunction against the manufacturers' marketing practices and monetary damages that Hunter said he hopes will be dedicated to rehabilitation of opioid-addicted Oklahomans.

State officials have said that since 2009, more Oklahoma residents have died from opioid-related deaths than in vehicle crashes in the state. The lawsuit states that Oklahoma is one of the leading states in prescription painkiller sales per capita, with 128 painkiller prescriptions dispensed per 100 people in 2012.