Purdue Pharma, which makes the drug OxyContin, is one of the defendants named in Georgia’s lawsuit involving the state’s opioid addiction crisis. (PHOTO by Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Photo: Liz O. Baylen
Photo: Liz O. Baylen

Georgia opioid lawsuit moved to business court, stays in Gwinnett

The state’s lawsuit against opioid manufacturers has been transferred to a special court in Gwinnett County originally set up to hear business disputes.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, who is in charge of the case on behalf of the state, requested the move. He said in a statement that it was good news because the court would have more resources to deal with such a complex case. A spokeswoman for Carr, Katie Byrd, said Tuesday that the move did not waive the state’s right to a jury trial. Carr has requested one.

“This is the proper venue for a case of this complexity and is good news for the people of Georgia,” Carr said in the statement.

Georgia’s lawsuit, like other plaintiffs’, accuses the drug companies of helping cause the opioid epidemic by misleading people about their addictive drugs. The companies deny that.

The Gwinnett business court was established in 2006, long before the statewide business courts recently enabled by a constitutional amendment, a court attorney said. The court is small, hearing perhaps five cases a year, which are mostly resolved without going to trial.

The cases are overseen by Judge Randolph “Randy” Rich, who otherwise mostly hears family court cases.

The court in 2016 opted into a business court program established for metro Atlanta, and Gwinnett joined Fulton County as the only two counties to do so. Anne Tucker, who once directed Fulton’s business court and is now a law professor at Georgia State University, said that such courts are not set up to be pro-business.

“I think generally the concern is with a specialized court that somehow that means that stacks the cards in favor of one side or the other,” Tucker said. Rather, Tucker said, the benefit is that business courts are supposed to have more time for the cases, and the judge should gain experience with complex cases.

“By that, I mean a really dense, complex record, a multitude of witnesses, depositions, helping the parties to manage the pre-litigation process to expedite it, and proceed in a fair and efficient way,” she said. She pointed out that retired teachers once sued the state over their pension fund calculations and the state court in Fulton ruled in the teachers’ favor.

An expert on the opioid litigation nationwide, Timothy Lytton, also a GSU professor, said he was not aware of other cases that might be in business courts. But he pointed out that a verdict this week in Oklahoma was delivered by a lone judge, not a jury.

The verdict could be read as a victory for Oklahoma, since the judge found that the drug company Johnson & Johnson owed the state for its part in Oklahoma’s opioid epidemic. And the amount, $572 million, is “a very sizable verdict in the civil justice system,” Lytton said.

However, the amount was a fraction of what the state sought: one year’s costs to repair the damage instead of the 20 years requested. Following the verdict, drug manufacturers’ stocks soared.

Opioid manufacturers professed no cheer, though. Purdue Pharma, named in Georgia’s suit but not in Oklahoma’s verdict, “vigorously denies the allegations in the lawsuits filed against the Company,” it said Tuesday in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “and will continue to defend itself against these misleading attacks.”

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at www.ajc.com/politics.

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