$572 Million Judgment in Landmark Oklahoma Opioid Lawsuit

Deborah Brauser

August 26, 2019

Johnson & Johnson and its pharmaceutical subsidiary Janssen will be held liable for more than $572 million in damages caused by its marketing of opioids in the state of Oklahoma, a local judge announced today in what is being called a "landmark" ruling.

The 8-week opioid lawsuit, in which Oklahoma attorney general Mike Hunter was seeking more than $17 billion for the state, was the first such suit to go to trial. However, more than a thousand suits from other local and state governments have been filed.

"The state met its burden that the defendants'…misleading marketing and promotion of opioids created a nuisance," Cleveland County district judge Thad Balkman said in his decision.

"Those actions compromised the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans. Specifically, defendants caused an opioid crisis that is evidenced by increased rates of addiction, overdose deaths, and neonatal abstinence syndrome," he added.

"Kingpin" of the Opioid Crisis

Hunter and his attorneys rested their case in July after 5 weeks of testimony.

"We have shown why we believe that Johnson & Johnson is the kingpin behind the opioid crisis that caused the deaths of thousands of Oklahomans and created a generation of people addicted to opioids in our state," Hunter said then in a news release put out by his office.

"The evidence is clear that they must be held accountable for the public nuisance they caused," he added.

The state of Oklahoma alleged that Johnson & Johnson "created a mutant strain of poppy" back in the early 1990s; that they supplied more than 60% of the active ingredients for opioids made and sold in the United States; that they went on to market all opioids as safe, with a low risk of addiction; and that they created an "Influence Map" to help ensure that their opioids were placed onto approved lists.

Between 2000 and 2011, physicians in Oklahoma "were targeted more than 150,000 times" in order to market synthetic opioids, including fentanyl and tramadol, the news release states. In addition, witness testimony from the manufacturer "has corroborated the State's case — that oversupply of opioids leads to addiction and death."

According to The Oklahoman, there were more than 6100 deaths in the state related to prescription opioids from 2000 to 2017.

Company Will Appeal

However, during its trial, Johnson & Johnson denied any wrongdoing, and has said it will appeal the ruling. Witnesses and/or attorneys noted that the US Food and Drug Administration has clear risk information for opioids on all labeling, yet doctors were the ones who continued to prescribe them.

The original lawsuit also named Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries as defendants. However, Oklahoma settled with Purdue in March for $270 million — almost $200 million of which will be used as an endowment to the Center for Wellness & Recovery at Oklahoma State University. The state settled with Teva in May for $85 million.

In today's announcement, Balkman said his abatement plan is for $572.1 million to "immediately remediate the nuisance" caused by the defendants, with details fully outlined in his 42-page judgment.

However, "there are possibilities, probably certainties, that I will be asked to rule on other matters in this case." He added that he will direct the state to prepare a final judgment within 10 days to be presented to the defendants, who will then have 5 days to voice any objections.

"If the parties can't agree, the court will set a time for a hearing to settle the final order," Balkman said.

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