Johnson & Johnson Ordered to Pay $572 Million in Landmark Opioid Trial

A judge in Oklahoma on Monday ruled against Johnson & Johnson, the deep-pocketed corporate giant, and ordered it to pay the state $572 million in the first trial of an opioid manufacturer for the destruction wrought by prescription painkillers.

Johnson & Johnson, which contracted with poppy growers in Tasmania, supplied 60 percent of the opiate ingredients that drug companies used for opioids like oxycodone, the state had argued, and aggressively marketed opioids to doctors and patients as safe and effective. A Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, made its own opioids — a pill whose rights it sold in 2015, and a fentanyl patch that it still produces.

“The opioid crisis is an imminent danger and menace to Oklahomans,” Judge Thad Balkman, of Cleveland County District Court, said in delivering his decision.

The landmark ruling was a resounding victory for Oklahoma’s attorney general, Mike Hunter. The closely watched case could be a dire warning for some two dozen opioid makers, distributors and retailers that face more than 2,000 similar lawsuits around the country. Johnson & Johnson, one the world’s biggest health care companies, said it would appeal.

Oklahoma Opioid Trial Decision Against Johnson & Johnson

On Aug. 26, 2019, Judge Thad Balkman of Cleveland County District Court in Oklahoma ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million to the state, finding that the company helped fuel the opioid epidemic. (PDF, 42 pages, 1.81 MB)

“We’ve shown that J&J was at the root cause of this opioid crisis,”
said Brad Beckworth, the lead attorney for the state. “It made billions of dollars from it over a 20-year period. They’ve always denied responsibility and yet at the same time they say they want to make a difference in solving this problem. So do the right thing: come in here, pay the judgment.”

The judge’s decision came after two other drug manufacturers that produce opioids, Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceutical, settled with Oklahoma earlier this year for $270 million and $85 million, respectively. In doing so, the companies did not admit wrongdoing. As a consequence, Oklahoma faced the steep climb of pinning the blame for its opioid crisis mainly on just one defendant.

The judgment against Johnson & Johnson represents a significant blow to a health care company that built its reputation as a family-friendly maker of baby products and consumer goods. In December, a jury in St. Louis found that Johnson & Johnson, which had sales of $81.6 billion last year, should pay $4.7 billion because its talc-based baby powder caused cancer in some consumers.

In a statement, Michael Ullmann, the general counsel and executive vice president of J&J, said: “Janssen did not cause the opioid crisis in Oklahoma, and neither the facts nor the law support this outcome. We recognize the opioid crisis is a tremendously complex public health issue and we have deep sympathy for everyone affected.”

Janssen, one of the largest manufacturers of brand-name drugs in the country, reported 2018 sales of $23.3 billion in the United States.

Oklahoma has suffered mightily from opioids. Mr. Hunter has said that between 2015 and 2018, 18 million opioid prescriptions were written in a state with a population of 3.9 million people. Since 2000, his office said, about 6,000 Oklahomans have died from opioid overdoses, with thousands more struggling with addiction.

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Jan Hoffman is a health behaviors reporter for Science, covering law, opioids, doctor-patient communication and other topics. She previously wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Style and was the legal affairs correspondent for Metro. @JanHoffmanNYT

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