Drugmaker ordered to pay $572M
Johnson & Johnson fueled Oklahoma's yearslong narcotics problem, judge rules
NORMAN, Okla. — A judge on Monday found Johnson & Johnson responsible for fueling Oklahoma’s opioid crisis, ordering the health care company to pay $572.1 million to redress the devastating consequences suffered by the state and its residents.
Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman’s landmark decision is the first to hold a drugmaker culpable for the fallout of years of opioid dispensing that began in the late 1990s, sparking a nationwide epidemic of overdose deaths and addiction. More than 400,000 people have died of overdoses from painkillers, heroin and illegal fentanyl since 1999.
Balkman, who read part of his decision aloud in his courtroom Monday afternoon, said “the opioid crisis has ravaged the state of Oklahoma and
must be abated immediately.”
With more than 40 states lined up to pursue similar claims against the pharmaceutical industry, the ruling in the first state case to go to trial could influence both sides’ strategies in the months and years to come. Its impact on an enormous federal lawsuit brought by nearly 2,000 cities, counties, Native American tribes and others, which is scheduled to begin in October, is less certain.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, a Republican, sued three major drug companies in 2017, accusing them of creating “a public nuisance” by flooding the state with opioids, while downplaying the drugs’ addictive potential and persuading physicians to use them even for minor aches and pains. Before the late 1990s, physicians reserved the powerful drugs primarily for cancer and post-surgical pain and end-oflife care.
More than 6,000 Oklahomans have died of painkiller overdoses since 2000, the state charged.
Oklahoma settled with Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of OxyContin, in March, accepting $270 million from the company and its owners, the Sackler family. Most of that will go to a treatment and research center at Oklahoma State University.
In May, two days before the trial began, the state settled with Teva Pharmaceuticals, an Israeli-based manufacturer of generic drugs, for $85 million.
That left Johnson & Johnson, which has denied any wrongdoing and chose to fight the accusations in what became a seven-week trial before Balkman. There was no jury.
The company’s products — two prescription opioid pills and a fentanyl skin patch sold by subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals — were a small part of the painkillers consumed in Oklahoma. But Hunter painted the company as a “kingpin” of the drug trade because two other companies it owned grew, processed and supplied most of the main ingredients in painkillers sold by most drug 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,” the state charged.
The state also said Johnson & Johnson took part in the pharmaceutical industry’s effort to change doctors’ reluctance to prescribe opioids by mounting an aggressive misinformation campaign that targeted the least knowledgeable physicians.