On Monday, Judge Thad Balkman of the Cleveland District Court delivered the ruling in a landmark trial against pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson. The state of Oklahoma, originally seeking $17 billion from the company, was awarded $572 million dollars (New York Times). In his ruling, Judge Balkman stated that Johnson & Johnson produced “false, misleading, and dangerous marketing campaigns” that “caused exponentially increasing rates of addiction, overdose deaths,” according to the New York Times. Johnson & Johnson plan to appeal the decision.
Mike Hunter, Oklahoma’s Attorney General, brought this case to court arguing that Johnson & Johnson’s actions constituted a public nuisance in the state. According to the New York Times, public nuisance laws are typically applied to cases in which something interferes with a right common to the general public. In his ruling, Judge Balkman stated that the company “engaged in false and misleading marketing of both their drugs and opioids generally, and the law makes clear that such conduct is more than enough to serve as the act or omission necessary to establish the first element of Oklahoma’s public nuisance law,” as reported by CNN.
Hunter’s original lawsuit involved two other pharmaceutical companies, Perdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals. In March, Perdue Pharma settled, agreeing to pay $270 million to the state of Oklahoma. Just days before the trial, Teva Pharmaceuticals also settled, agreeing to pay $85 million (NPR). Despite these two other settlements, Johnson & Johnson is still being pegged as the main culprit in the opioid crisis, mainly due to the contract it maintains with poppy growers in Tasmania. According to the New York Times, Johnson & Johnson used this contract to supply 60% of the opiate ingredients to other drug companies, which were then used to produce opiates such as oxycodone. Additionally, Johnson & Johnson had two subsidiaries that produced their own opioid products. Janssen Pharmaceuticals produced an opioid pill, to which they sold the rights in 2015; today, the company still produces a fentanyl patch. General counsel and executive Vice President of Johnson & Johnson Michael Ullmann responded to the ruling, saying that “Janssen did not produce the opioid crisis in Oklahoma, and neither the facts nor the law support this outcome.” He continued, saying that “we recognize the opioid crisis is a tremendously complex health issue, and we have deep sympathy for everyone affected.”
The opioid crisis has arguably been the greatest health concern facing the United States in recent years. According to the Washington Post, more than 400,000 people have fatally overdosed on painkillers, heroin and illegal fentanyl since 1999. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that this epidemic began in the late 1990’s, when pharmaceutical companies assured the medical community that opioids were safe, and would not lead to addiction. This lead to a massive over-prescription of opioids, including to patients who really did not need the strong drugs. Currently, more than 130 people in the United States die every day after overdosing on opioids (National Institute on Drug Abuse). The Washington Post reports that in 2017, 479 opioid prescriptions were fulfilled every hour in Oklahoma.
While there is no question that the opioid crisis is a problem in desperate need of attention, there has been push-back against the ruling in this case. Johnson & Johnson argued that blame cannot be placed on a company with such small percentages of sales in Oklahoma. According to NPR, Johnson & Johnson-branded opioid products made up less than 1% of total opioid prescriptions in Oklahoma. The company also argued that their products were highly regulated and approved by both state and federal agencies. In a statement, Johnson & Johnson lawyer Sabrina Strong said that the opioid crisis was not caused by Johnson and Johnson, but rather it is “largely driven by illegally manufactured drugs that are coming into the country from Mexico and elsewhere.” Richard Ausness, who teaches law at the University of Kentucky and closely follows opioid litigation, also questioned the ruling in the case. “If Johnson & Johnson is responsible for the opioid epidemic as a long-term problem, why only provide enough money for one year?”
While reactions to this case have been mixed, the most important thing to note is that this trial has taken a huge step towards ending the opioid crisis in America. According to CNN, there are still 2,000 lawsuits pending across the country. This case has set the precedent that we, as a nation, cannot wait any longer to fix this crisis. Moving forward, it is important to commit to funding and developing abuse treatment and facilities.
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