Oklahoma AG's office the target of some legislation
Attorney General Mike Hunter riled some legislators last year with his handling of cases against opioid manufacturers. This session, Hunter is feeling their wrath.
Bills have been filed that deal with contingency fees paid to outside counsel. Senate Bill 1820, for example, would cap those fees and require state agencies or officials to look for the most economical choice when using outside counsel. Another Senate bill would restrict the AG office’s ability to enter into contingency fee agreements.
The impetus for these efforts is the large checks going to outside attorneys. The state in 2019 reached a $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, and the family that controls the company.
The AG’s office also reached an $85 million settlement with Teva Pharmaceuticals and an $8.75 million settlement with Endo Pharmaceuticals. And, the state won a $465 million judgment in its non-jury trial against Johnson & Johnson and a group of affiliated opioid makers.
(Some lawmakers also were upset that the Purdue settlement didn’t go to the state treasury. Instead, Purdue stipulated that $200 million must go toward establishing a national center for addiction treatment at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa. Hunter noted that the drugmaker only agreed to make the deal if the money didn’t go to the Legislature. Lawmakers subsequently approved a bill, signed by the governor, requiring any funds from lawsuits involving the state and settled by the AG to go into the state treasury going forward.)
Of the Purdue Pharma settlement, the outside legal team Hunter used on a contingency basis will receive $60 million. The attorneys will receive $12.75 million for the Teva case and $534,300 for the Endo case. Payment for the Johnson & Johnson case is on hold because the verdict is under appeal.
Hunter’s office says he selected firms with the most experience, and that the outcomes to date would not have been the same if he hadn’t done so. The office also notes that Oklahoma is one of the few states that has received any money from pharmaceutical companies in this fight, which is underway from coast to coast.
Michael Burrage, one of the outside attorneys who has worked on this litigation, said the results “couldn’t have happened” if SB 1820, which initially had a $10 million cap, had been the law at the time. “The drug companies support that kind of legislation because it prohibits the state from getting counsel that can go to bat with them,” he said in January. Burrage said the firms’ out-of-pocket expenses exceeded $15 million.
Another attorney involved in the state’s cases, Bradley Beckworth, noted the arrangement benefited the state because it was able to win the lawsuit and obtain large settlements without spending millions in up-front costs.
This newspaper traditionally hasn’t been a fan of contingency-fee arrangements. However, they have proven effective in the opioid lawsuits, something for which countless Oklahomans are grateful. The Legislature should tread carefully on this issue.