Bottles of prescription painkiller OxyContin made by Purdue Pharma LP sit on a shelf at a local pharmacy in Provo, Utah, U...

Trial begins in West Virginia lawsuit against opioid manufacturers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Drug manufacturers misrepresented the risks and benefits of opioids in West Virginia and contributed to the state’s opioid crisis, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said in opening arguments at a trial that began Monday.

Morrisey asked a judge to hold Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., along with Teva Pharmaceuticals Inc., AbbVie Inc.’s Allergan and their family of companies accountable for their “unlawful, unreasonable, callous and destructive conduct.”

The defendants “participated in a highly sophisticated scheme to mislead healthcare providers and consumers about the addictive nature of their products,” Morrisey said.

Those efforts led to opioids becoming a common treatment for chronic pain and fueled substance abuse in West Virginia. The state has the nation’s highest rate of drug overdose deaths. Morrisey said the companies’ actions created a public nuisance and violating the state’s Consumer Credit and Protection Act.

One by one, company attorneys told the court that their individual products in question had considerably less than 1% of the market share in West Virginia, were medically necessary prescriptions and could not have contributed to the state’s opioid problems.

READ MORE: Johnson & Johnson, distributors finalize $26 billion opioid settlement

Allergan attorney Donna Welch said the company’s marketing of Norco, for instance, was directed at prescribers already dispensing opioids for their patients.

“They weren’t trying to grow the opioid market,” Welch said.

Earlier, Teva attorney Harvey Bartle said company sales representatives who visit doctors are “not evidence of a public nuisance, or certainly not a violation of the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act.”

In November, a California judge ruled in favor of Johnson & Johnson, Allergan, Endo International, Teva and others, saying that local governments hadn’t proven in a lawsuit that the pharmaceutical companies used deceptive marketing to increase unnecessary opioid prescriptions and create a public nuisance.

Welch said Allergan’s conduct was no different in West Virginia than it was anywhere else.

“By the end of the trial, you will have heard zero evidence of marketing misconduct,” she said.

The bench trial in Kanawha County Circuit Court is expected to take up to two months.

Morrisey announced last week that the state had reached a $26 million settlement with another defendant, Endo Health Solutions Inc.

Nationwide settlements were finalized in February by Johnson & Johnson and distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson over their role in the opioid addiction crisis, clearing the way for $26 billion to flow to nearly every state and local government in the U.S. West Virginia previously reached settlements in separate lawsuits, including $37 million with distributor McKesson in 2019, and $20 million with Cardinal Health and $16 million with AmerisourceBergen in 2017.

In Charleston, a separate bench trial wrapped up last summer in federal court in a lawsuit accusing AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson of fueling the opioid crisis in Cabell County and the city of Huntington. That judge has not indicated when he’ll rule.

Editor’s note: Johnson & Johnson is a funder for the PBS NewsHour.