NORMAN, OK—A judge suggested that Johnson & Johnson was the kingpin of Oklahoma’s opioid crisis on August 26, ordering the New Brunswick-based pharmaceutical giant to pay $572 million to fix the ravage the epidemic has caused the state’s residents.
The verdict could be a warning to other drug companies facing similar cases in courts across the nation.
There are more than 2,000 court cases across the country with the objective of holding drugmakers, retail pharmacy chains, and distributors accountable for the wrong use of opioids.
The case in Oklahoma wound up putting J&J in the spotlight after two other drug manufacturers settled their claims.
Cleveland County (Oklahoma) District Judge Thad Balkman’s decision holds drug manufacturer J&J blameworthy for years of broad-based opioid distribution starting in the late 1990s.
Supplying and dispensing a slew of opioids reportedly led to abuse of the drugs and overdose deaths across the nation.
The allegation was that J&J deceived both the medical community and the public regarding the safety of opioids. Some 400,000 people lost their lives due to overdoses from painkillers, heroin, and fentanyl from 1999.
“The opioid crisis has ravaged the state of Oklahoma and must be abated immediately,” Balkman said on the afternoon of August 26, ruling in the closely-watched seven-week bench trial.
“As a matter of law, I find that defendants’ actions caused harm… because those actions annoyed, injured or endangered the comfort, repose, health or safety of Oklahomans,” continued his decision.
“Today Judge Balkman has affirmed our position that Johnson & Johnson, motivated by greed and avarice is responsible for the opioid epidemic in [Oklahoma and J&J] will finally be held accountable for thousands of deaths and addictions caused by their activities,” said Mike Hunter, Oklahoma’s Attorney General.
It’s “a major victory for the state of Oklahoma, the nation and everyone who has lost a loved one because of an opioid overdose,” Hunter said.
Balkman only held J&J responsible to pay for one year of the state’s “abatement” efforts to fix the epidemic, rather than the 20 years the state hoped for.
“Throughout the trial our team proved what we have alleged all along – that the company used pseudo-science and misleading information to downplay the risks of opioids leading to the worst man-made public nuisance our state and this country has ever seen,” said Attorney General Hunter.
J&J said that the decision does not take into account the fact that it fully complied with federal and state laws, responsibly making medicines that are vitally important for patients who suffer serious harm.
Attorneys for J&J also contend that their opioid drugs comprise less than 1% of the market in Oklahoma, and that the state’s position hinged on century-old “radical theories unmoored from… case law.”
But the company reportedly made money almost anytime an opioid was sold—even if it’s not their product—because it was also a leading supplier of ingredients used in the medicines.
While J&J’s prescription opioid pills and its fentanyl skin patch sold by its Janssen Pharmaceuticals unit constituted only a small portion of the painkillers used in Oklahoma, two other J&J subsidiaries—Noramco and Tasmanian Alkaloids—owned grew, processed, and supplied 60% of the ingredients in painkillers sold by other pharma companies.
“At the root of this crisis was Johnson & Johnson, a company that literally created the poppy that became the source of the opioid crisis,” asserted the state.
The state noted that J&J helped actively change doctors’ reluctance to prescribe opioids by launching a misinformation campaign targeting less experienced physicians.
The corporation’s “marketing scheme was driven by a desire to make billions for their pain franchise,” stated Hunter. “To do this, they developed and carried out a plan to directly influence and convince doctors to prescribe more and more opioids, despite the fact that defendants knew increasing the supply of opioids would lead to abuse, addiction, misuse, death, and crime.”
The “public nuisance” argument put forth by Hunter had previously been used with success to fight the tobacco industry, and could possibly be used in opioid lawsuits slated for trial in Ohio this fall, according to reports.
J&J, by far the largest corporation headquartered in the Hub City, said it would appeal the decision. It does not believe its subsidiary caused the opioid crisis in Oklahoma, and said through an attorney that neither the facts nor the law support the outcome.
Dave is an award-winning business reporter who has authored over 200 articles for New Brunswick Today.