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The Norman Transcript: Balkman appoints judicial master in state opioid case

The Norman Transcript: Balkman appoints judicial master in state opioid case

NORMAN — Cleveland County Judge Thad Balkman has appointed a judicial master to the Oklahoma Attorney General's lawsuit against several opioid manufacturers. With the decision, disputes involving evidence in the case shouldn’t keep the case from moving forward.

On Monday, Balkman signed an order appointing William C. Hetherington Jr. as a special master leading up to the case’s May 28, 2019, trial date.

“The likely benefit of the appointment of a discovery master outweighs its burden or expense, considering the unique needs of the case, the sizable amount in controversy, the parties’ resources, the overarching public importance of the issues at stake in the action and the importance of the referred issues in resolving the proceeding in which the appointment is made,” Balkman’s order read.

As a special master, Hetherington will work to ensure efficiency in the court system by resolving evidence disputes between the state and the companies.

He is a former Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals and Cleveland County judge.

Hetherington will be paid $375 an hour and reimbursed for all reasonable expenses incurred. The companies agreed to pay Hetherington during a Jan. 11 hearing.

On June 30, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter filed a lawsuit claiming Purdue Pharma, Allergan, Teva, Janssen Pharmaceuticals and some of their subsidiaries misrepresented the addiction risks of their products that include dilaudid, kadian, actiq, fentora, duragesic, nucynta and oxycontin.

According to the Oklahoma State Department of Health, from 2011 to 2015, there were 3,553 unintentional overdose deaths in Oklahoma — 60 percent of those deaths involved opioids.

Additionally, according to nationwide statistics gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioids killed more than 42,000 people in 2016, more than any year on record. Forty percent of all opioid overdose deaths involved a prescription opioid.

“The state’s case is solid, and our team is prepared to hold these companies accountable for their role in the deadliest drug epidemic the state and nation have ever seen,” Hunter said.

What Hunter called a “drug epidemic” has prompted recommended legislation, policy and rules changes by his office and the recently formed Oklahoma Commission on Opioid Abuse. 

Hunter, along with Sen. AJ Griffin, R-Guthrie, and Rep. Tim Downing, R-Purcell, announced the creation of the nine-member commission — made up of representatives from law enforcement, the medical community, businesses and the state legislature — in April.

Members were tasked with studying, evaluating and making recommendations for changes to state policy, rules and statutes to better combat opioid abuse in Oklahoma.

The commission’s recommendations for legislative changes included mandating the use of electronic prescriptions, criminalizing the trafficking of fentanyl and its equivalent, requiring medical clinic owners to register with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, taxing manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors of opioids and using the money as a funding mechanism for opioid addiction treatment.

“What we are presenting today is a blueprint for changes to legislation and policy that will establish a much needed framework to further enhance Oklahoma’s response to the opioid epidemic,” Hunter said. “When implemented, we know lives will be saved, more treatment options will be made available, addiction will be diagnosed, diverted and treated, allowing families who have loved ones struggling with addiction to get help and drug dealers will be held accountable. I look forward to seeing the change that will come about because of our work.”