Cleveland County District Court’s Judge Thad Balkman in Oklahoma recently ruled that the multinational brand Johnson & Johnson intentionally downplayed dangers to oversell opioids, and ordered payment to the state to the tune of $572 million in the first of it’s kind trial of a huge drug manufacturer for the damage caused by it’s prescription painkillers. Oklahoma had sought a $17 billion judgment to pay for drug courts, de-addiction treatment and other services needed over 20 years to repair damages caused by the opioid epidemic.
The landmark decision encouraged lawyers representing plaintiffs from states and cities in more than 2,000 opioid-addiction lawsuits that are pending across the country, pursuing similar legal strategies. Judge Balkman’s harsh order hurt Johnson & Johnson, a company that is responsible and a family-friendly manufacturer of soaps, Band-Aids and baby powder for breaching the Cleveland’s “public nuisance” laws.
The Judge ruled that Johnson & Johnson had publicized dangerous, false, and misleading marketing campaigns which had caused exponentially pushing up rates of overdose deaths, addiction, and babies born imperiled to opioids. Johnson & Johnson contracted Tasmanian poppy growers to supply 60% or so of the opiate ingredients used by drug companies for opioids such as oxycodone and aggressively promoted opioids to patients and healthcare providers as effective and safe.
Michael Ullmann, Johnson & Johnson’s general counsel and executive vice president said that Janssen (their pharmaceutical subsidiary) did not bring about the Oklahoma opioid crisis and neither the facts nor the law supported this outcome. During this landmark trial, Johnson & Johnson insist that blame for this epidemic could not be placed on one company with marginal sales, and that their drugs were all approved and strictly regulated by state and federal agencies.
Judge Balkman confirmed that Johnson & Johnson maliciously created the opioid epidemic in Oklahama. The state’s case was argued by private lawyers some driven by their own tragedy — as they had seen a son; a business partner and friends succumb to opioids. Johnson & Johnson had a huge impact on Oklahoma’s drug epidemic, though the share of opioid sales was scarcely 1% of the market. The company engaged in misleading, false, and deceptive marketing as per experts.
In early 2019, Teva Pharmaceuticals and Purdue Pharma agreed to pay $270 million and $85 million, respectively. Judge Balkman advised that the $572 million can be used to device services to combat this epidemic in Oklahoma, at least for a year. Oklahoma’s attorney general, Mike Hunter confirmed having built a fund of $1000 million from the cumulative amount of the Johnson & Johnson judgment and the settlements with two other drug manufacturers producing opioids. The state pegged the figure at $893 million per year, or roughly $17 billion over 20 years.
More Cases Remain
The settlements proved that Oklahoma pinned the entire blame for the opioid crisis on only one defendant. Judge Balkman’s verdict comes only 2 months before Cleveland’s first federal opioid hearing is about to begin, involving two Ohio counties who named some major pharmacies, manufacturers and distributors. The case was closely monitored by 24 opioid makers, retailers and distributors facing over 2,000 similar lawsuits in the US. Further, the Kentucky Supreme Court permitted release of documents relating to Purdue Pharma’s publicity of OxyContin, a major opioid.