By Heide Brandes
NORMAN, Okla. (Reuters) - Lawyers for the state of Oklahoma on Monday compared Johnson & Johnson <JNJ.N> to a drug cartel leader as they sought to hold the drugmaker responsible for fuelling the U.S. opioid epidemic in the first trial to result from lawsuits over the crisis.
Lawyers for the state, including Attorney General Mike Hunter, told a judge in Norman, Oklahoma that J&J's "greed" led the drugmaker to carry out a years-long marketing effort that caused "utter confusion" about the addictive painkillers' risks.
Brad Beckworth, a lawyer for the state, said J&J knew opioids were harmful, yet minimized the risk of addiction in their marketing, resulting in a surge in overdose deaths as doctors overprescribed the drugs and they flooded the state.
"They didn't get here from a Mexican cartel," Beckworth said. "They got here from the pharmaceutical cartel, and the kingpin of them all is Johnson & Johnson."
The state urged Judge Thad Balkman, who presided over the nonjury trial for six weeks, to find J&J liable for creating a public nuisance and force it to pay up to $17 billion over 30 years to address the epidemic.
Larry Ottaway, J&J's attorney, countered its products, which had included the painkillers Duragesic and Nucynta, were minimally used in Oklahoma and that trial testimony showed doctors were not misled about the drugs' risks before prescribing them.
He said New Brunswick, New Jersey-based J&J strictly adhered to regulations governing opioids, which served a legitimate purpose, and called Oklahoma's multi-billion dollar demand "untenable."
"Only a company that believes its innocence would come in and defend itself against a state, but we take the challenge on because we believe we are right," Ottaway said in his closing argument.
Balkman said he would rule after receiving briefs from both sides, due July 31.
The case is one of around 2,000 actions by state and local governments accusing drug manufacturers of contributing to the opioid epidemic. Opioids were linked to a record 47,600 overdose deaths in 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Oklahoma case is being closely watched by plaintiffs in other opioid lawsuits, particularly in 1,900 cases pending before a federal judge in Ohio who has been pushing for a settlement ahead of an October trial.
Purdue and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd <TEVA.TA> were originally also defendants in the case. Purdue reached a $270 million settlement with Oklahoma in March and Teva settled for $85 million in May. Both deny wrongdoing.
(Reporting by Heide Brandes; writing by Nate Raymond; editing by Noeleen Walder, Jonathan Oatis and Rosalba O'Brien)