In a landmark judgement, Oklahoma judge Thad Balkman ruled on Monday, Aug. 26, that Johnson & Johnson is liable for playing a large role in sparking the state’s opioid crisis through its deceptive marketing practices.
With thousands of opioid lawsuits still pending, and another major opioid trial set for October, Monday’s ruling could set a new precedent in the fight against irresponsible drug manufacturers. It is the first lawsuit in the United States to hold a pharmaceutical company responsible for one of the worst and most deadly drug epidemics in modern history.
As a result of Judge Balkman’s ruling, Johnson & Johnson must pay $572 million to the state of Oklahoma. Oklahoma had sought $17.5 billion — a number that reflected the amount needed to fund multiyear recovery initiatives in the wake devastation wrought upon Oklahoman communities.
In Oklahoma alone, opioids have claimed the lives of more than 6,000 people.
The Case Against Johnson & Johnson
Mike Hunter, Oklahoma’s state attorney general, filed a suit alleging that Johnson & Johnson’s subsidiary company, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., created a public-health crisis that ultimately led to the death of thousands of Oklahomans. The term used by Attorney General Hunter — “public nuisance”— was affirmed by Judge Balkman’s ruling.
Said Judge Balkman in a statement,
“The defendants caused an opioid crisis that is evidenced by increased rates of addiction, overdose deaths and neonatal abstinence syndrome in Oklahoma…. The state met its burden [of proof, showing that J&J participated in] misleading marketing and promotion of opioids.”
Still, $572 million falls well short of the $17.5 billion the state had sought. According to Judge Balkman, State Attorney General Hunter did not provide sufficient evidence to support a 20-year recovery program, which the $17.5 billion would’ve been used to fund. Instead, Judge Balkman declared that a $572 million payout would fund the state’s recovery plan for a single-year term.
As proposed by Judge Balkman, the $572-million plan would provide:
- $246 million for addiction-treatment services
- $103 million for pain management
- $57 million for universal screening services
- $20 million for infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome
- $11 million for regulatory investigations
In his closing remarks, Judge Balkman noted that he will retain jurisdiction over the case, which implies that the state of Oklahoma could return next year — and for several years in the foreseeable future — to Johnson & Johnson, seeking additional funds for the continued cost of opioid abatement.
Paul Hanly, Jr. Gets Set for Ohio Trial in October
Attorney Paul Hanly, Jr. of Simmons Hanly Conroy serves as co-lead of the National Prescription Opiates MDL, overseen by Judge Dan Aaron Polster of Ohio. With the next major opioid trial taking place in October, Hanly acknowledged the $572-million judgement as a step in the right direction to NPR: “If you extrapolate that amount across all cases that Johnson & Johnson is facing, you are in the tens of billions of dollars.”
In an interview with CNN, Hanly stated:
“This is a very positive ruling for all of the communities that we represent. This was important because, for the first time, a court — with a full body of evidence before it — looked at both sides of the argument and concluded: A) That there is an opioid epidemic, B) that it’s a public nuisance and C) that, in this case, Johnson & Johnson was the cause of that nuisance. So, we’re very pleased with the ruling.”
In the few days since the landmark ruling, several opioid-manufacturing companies, including Purdue Pharmaceuticals, have re-opened discussions with federal authorities on possible settlements. As reported by NPR, Purdue might settle all of the opioid cases against them for $12 billion in addition to filing bankruptcy.
Asked whether the Oklahoma ruling will impact the way federal opioid cases are tried in the future, Hanly said, “Absolutely, because the judge here sent a very strong message that the wrongdoing was principally the marketing — the false marketing — the creation of false science around these drugs.”
Johnson & Johnson Vows to Fight Back
As is their tradition, Johnson & Johnson, the $350-billion-dollar Big Pharma company, plans to appeal the Oklahoma judgement. Johnson & Johnson Executive Vice President and General Counsel Michael Ullman stated shortly after the ruling:
“This judgment is a misapplication of public nuisance law that has already been rejected by judges in other states. The unprecedented award for the state’s ‘abatement plan’ has sweeping ramifications for many industries and bears no relation to the company’s medicines or conduct.”
While Johnson & Johnson vows to fight back against the ruling, homes and families affected by the opioid epidemic may be caught waiting and wondering what is next for them. Currently, an additional 2,000 opioid cases have been consolidated into the federal litigation that Hanly oversees.
Johnson & Johnson is named as a defendant in the MDL, along with 21 other pharmaceutical companies, including Janssen, Allergan, Teva Pharmaceuticals and Purdue.
Co-lead attorneys representing the communities wrecked by the opioid epidemic, Paul Hanly, Jr., Paul T. Farrell, Jr. and Jospeh F. Rice, called Oklahoma’s ruling a “milestone,” marking a “critical step forward” in opioid litigation.
Their joint statement also noted that “the ruling in favor of the State of Oklahoma’s public nuisance claims confirms what communities have been saying for some time: the opioid epidemic significantly interfered with public health.”