NORMAN, Okla. — In a first-of-its-kind case, an Oklahoma judge yesterday ordered the consumer products behemoth Johnson & Johnson, and its painkiller-producing subsidiary Janssen, to pay the state more than $572 million to abate the state’s opioid crisis.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 400,000 Americans died of drug overdoses involving opioids between 1999 and 2017. In the trial, the state testified that 6,000 Oklahomans had died of an opioid-related drug overdose since 2000 and thousands more were still battling addictions.
Summarizing his 42-page decision before a packed courtroom, Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman said that the drugmaker’s promotion of opioids “caused an opioid crisis that is evidenced by increased rates of addiction, overdose deaths and neonatal abstinence syndrome in Oklahoma.”
Following the verdict, Johnson & Johnson vowed to appeal the decision to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
“Janssen did not cause the opioid crisis in Oklahoma,” Michael Ullman, executive vice president of Johnson & Johnson, said in a statement, noting that the company’s painkiller sales amounted to less than 1% of total opioid prescriptions in Oklahoma and the United States.
The Oklahoma verdict comes after a closely watched eight-week trial in a case filed two years ago by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, a Republican.
The ruling could have nationwide implications for more than 2,000 pending opioid cases brought by states, counties, cities, Native American tribes and other groups against drugmakers, distributors and retail pharmacies.
Celebrating the state’s victory in a crowded hearing room in the same courthouse, Hunter said Balkman “affirmed our position that Johnson & Johnson maliciously and diabolically created the opioid epidemic in our state.”
“Our evidence convincingly showed that this company did not just lie and mislead, they colluded with other companies en route to the deadliest manmade epidemic our nation has ever seen.”
The size of the Oklahoma judgement – which the judge said should be used to cover one year of a detailed plan submitted by the state for addiction treatment, overdose prevention, law enforcement and other services – fell short of the more than $17 billion the state asked for.
State legislators and policymakers should decide whether future funding is needed to remedy the state’s opioid epidemic, Balkman said.
Before the trial started in July, two other drugmakers dropped out of the case. In March, Purdue Pharma agreed to pay Oklahoma $270 million in a no-fault settlement. And in July, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries agreed to pay $85 million to resolve the state’s claims.
When combined with Monday’s judgment, the state’s winnings in the case come to more than $927 million.