Oklahoma rests case in opioid trial against drugmaker Johnson & Johnson

Company may have to pay up to $17 billion

By Wayne Drash, CNN
John Moore/Getty Images

(CNN) - The state of Oklahoma rested its case Tuesday in a historic opioid trial against Johnson & Johnson after grilling a former sales representative about her lack of scientific training and her awareness of the state's painkiller epidemic.

Drue Diesselhorst, a sales rep for Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals from 2003 to 2012, was the final witness for the state after 28 witnesses over six weeks. The trial is testing whether a state can hold a drug company accountable for the opioid epidemic affecting its residents.

Diesselhorst had been added as a witness at the last minute and was brought to testify in an unusual order, called with the judge's approval after Johnson & Johnson had begun its defense. She was on vacation last week when the state had hoped to wrap up its case.

She told the court that she knows little about addiction and that she didn't even know there was an opioid epidemic in Oklahoma until she was subpoenaed to testify.

Asked whether she knew that Johnson & Johnson, if found liable in this case, might have to pay "upwards of $17 billion to abate the nuisance issue," Diesselhorst said, "I wasn't aware of that."

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter has accused Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries of creating a public nuisance with its alleged role in the opioid crisis, costing the state billions of dollars and destroying thousands of lives.

Johnson & Johnson has denied any wrongdoing, saying it followed the law and acted appropriately in its marketing and promotion of opioids.

The trial is playing out in the courtroom of Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman in Norman. It is the first of its kind in the nation, and legal scholars say it could set a major precedent for other states.

With the state resting, Johnson & Johnson will now resume its defense. The drugmaker is expected to take another three weeks to present its defense, and closing arguments would follow.

Diesselhorst appeared a reluctant state witness, saying she was a "loyal employee" who did everything the company asked. She said the company properly trained reps to educate doctors about opioids and said it would be "wrong" for Johnson & Johnson to target pill mills, women and veterans.

"That would be wrong -- and all these things did not happen," she said.

"They didn't?" asked Brad Beckworth, an attorney representing the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office.

"Not in my experience," she said.

Beckworth sighed loudly. "Let's let that soak for a second," he said.

Johnson & Johnson attorney Sabrina Strong leaped to object: "Your honor, we've seen this throughout the trial, and I would ask that it stop."

Diesselhorst had trouble recollecting specifics about her nine years with the company, repeatedly saying "I don't remember" when asked about her training and other details of her job. A skeptical Beckworth often punctuated those moments with "hmmm."

"The reason I don't remember the specific training I got is because I have three little girls," Diesselhorst said, noting that she's a "busy mom" who put those details behind her when she left the company seven years ago.

"I retired happily from Janssen, and there was no need for me to remember any of my training, and I just don't," she said.

Beckworth followed up: "If you can't remember what training you got, how in the world can you testify under oath that the training you got was appropriate?"

Courtroom drama was high for a second consecutive day. At one point, Beckworth faced so many objections that he angrily said, "I've never seen a company that tries to hide truth more than this one, ever." Strong shot back, "This is not about hiding the truth."

Under questioning, Diesselhorst acknowledged that she was not a pain expert and that she majored in communications at the University of Oklahoma. Beyond company training, she said, she had no expertise in addiction, psychology, opioid addiction, chemistry or pharmacology and no background in public health.

That said, she was proud of her work as a sales rep.

"We had unbelievable training," she said.

At another point, she was asked about targeting an Oklahoma doctor for sales who had been disciplined by the state medical board and who was the subject of an undercover investigation. She said she didn't know that the doctor had been disciplined.

"My job was not to figure out the red flags," Diesselhorst said.

Quizzed about another doctor whom the state said she "detailed" 30 times, she said she was unaware that some of the doctor's patients had died from overdoses. "How would I know this information?" she said.

Beckworth walked her through more call notes from her efforts to target Oklahoma doctors for sales. He said the state had 35 boxes of call notes, including ones to doctors who faced investigations over their prescribing habits.

Johnson & Johnson's Strong only had one question for Diesselhorst, asking whether the "state ever advised you of those investigations."

"Never," Diesselhorst said.

The state has said that more than 6,100 Oklahomans died as a result of a prescription drug overdose from 2000 to 2017. It has proposed a $17.5 billion abatement plan over 30 years to get the state out of its opioid epidemic.

In testimony last week, the state's mental health commissioner, Terri White, said the abatement plan is "absolutely necessary and reasonable."

"If we do not abate it, more Oklahomans will die," she said.

Oklahoma reached two settlements ahead of the trial with other drugmakers: a $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, and an $85 million settlement with Teva Pharmaceuticals, one of the world's largest makers of generic drugs.

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