© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Bottles of prescription painkiller OxyContin made by Purdue Pharma LP on a counter at a local pharmacy in Provo

By Nate Raymond

(Reuters) – OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP and two other drugmakers on Friday lost a bid to delay a landmark trial set for May in a lawsuit by Oklahoma’s attorney general accusing them of helping fuel an opioid abuse and overdose epidemic in the state.

Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman’s decision was a win for the state, even as one of its lawyers said that Purdue had “threatened” to file for bankruptcy rather than face the first trial to result from around 2,000 lawsuits nationally.

“This case needs to get to trial because people are dying every day,” Reggie Whitten, a lawyer for the state, said during a hearing in Norman, Oklahoma.

Reuters, citing people familiar with the matter, on Monday reported that Stamford, Connecticut-based Purdue, owned by members of the wealthy Sackler family, was exploring filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Doing so would allow it to address potential legal liabilities while bringing the cases to a halt.

Eric Pinker, Purdue’s lawyer, made no mention of a potential bankruptcy while arguing to delay the May 28 trial in Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter’s lawsuit against it, Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:) and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries (NYSE:) Ltd.

He instead argued that delaying a trial in the multibillion dollar case to Sept. 16 was necessary because the state belatedly turned over 1.6 million pages of records critical to Purdue’s defense.

“This case is not at a posture where it can fairly and fully go to trial in May of this year,” Pinker said.

But the judge said the drugmakers had not established the state’s actions had prejudiced them. The drugmakers’ lawyers said they would appeal.

Opioids, including prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl, were involved in a record 47,600 overdose deaths in 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The epidemic has led to lawsuits by state and local governments accusing Purdue and other drugmakers of contributing to the crisis through deceptive marketing that downplayed the risks and benefits of addictive opioids.

The companies deny wrongdoing, noting their drugs carried warning labels and pointing to others factors that contributed to the epidemic.

More than 1,600 lawsuits have been consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio, who has been pushing for a settlement ahead of the first trial before him in October.

Other cases are pending in state courts, including Oklahoma’s, one of 36 lawsuits by state attorneys general facing Purdue.

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2019-03-08