An Oklahoma district court judge has ordered Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.NYSE) to pay $572 million for its part in the state’s opioid epidemic.
Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman’s decision got the finger-pointing under way, holding the pharma giant responsible for the years of dispensing the opioids that led to a nationwide epidemic of overdose deaths and addiction.
The painkiller death toll has surpassed 400,000 people in the state since 1999.
“The opioid crisis has ravaged the state of Oklahoma and must be abated immediately. As a matter of law, I find that defendants’ actions caused harm, and those harms are the kinds recognized by [state law] because those actions annoyed, injured or endangered the comfort, repose, health or safety of Oklahomans,” Balkman wrote in the decision.
The lineup in the United States to take a strip out of the pharmaceutical industry is now 40 states long, and the ruling could influence both the strategies from both sides in the months and years to come.
The company products include two prescription opioid pills and a fentanyl skin patch sold by its subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceuticals.
The state’s argument hinged around the notion that Johnson and Johnson engaged in a misinformation campaign aimed at changing doctor’s reluctant to prescribe opioids.
The company’s “marketing scheme was driven by a desire to make billions for their pain franchise. To do this, they developed and carried out a plan to directly influence and convince doctors to prescribe more and more opioids, despite the fact that defendants knew increasing the supply of opioids would lead to abuse, addiction, misuse, death and crime,” said Attorney General Mike Hunter.
The company makes money from the entire length of its production chain, from a poppy growing operation in Australia which supplies 60% of the chemical used in opioid manufacturing to the sale of its own high strength painkillers, according to Hunter.
Johnson and Johnson’s defense was that it carried no liability for supplying legal products and ingredients, which were highly regulated by both the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“At the heart of the state’s case is the premise that stray promotional statements by Janssen over the course of two decades somehow caused Oklahoma’s opioid abuse crisis. Never once, however, did the state identify a single Oklahoma doctor who was misled by a single statement Janssen made,”said Johnson and Johnson’s lawyers, referring to the subsidiary that supplied the opioids.
Hunter originally asked for $17.5 billion over 30 years to help pay for treatment, emergency care, law enforcement, social services and other needs related to recovery from the opioid epidemic.
“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,” said Michael Ullmann, executive vice president for Johnson and Johnson.
Not a good year for J&J
In May, the company was ordered to pay $300 million to a woman who blamed her rare asbestos-related cancer on the company’s talc-based products. It’s one of 13,000 talc-related lawsuits that the company’s presently dealing with. Naturally, the company denies that talc causes cancer, and has cited numerous studies and tests by regulators worldwide that have stated that its talc is safe and asbestos free.
The company has vowed to appeal both rulings.