By Sean Murphy
NORMAN, Okla.— An Oklahoma judge on Monday found that Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries helped fuel the state’s opioid crisis and ordered the consumer products giant to pay $572 million, more than twice the amount another drug manufacturer agreed to pay in a settlement.
Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman’s ruling followed the first state opioid case to make it to trial and could help shape negotiations over roughly 1,500 similar lawsuits filed by state, local and tribal governments consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio.
“The opioid crisis has ravaged the state of Oklahoma,” Balkman said before announcing the judgment. “It must be abated immediately.”
An attorney for the companies said they plan to appeal the ruling to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Before Oklahoma’s trial began May 28, the state reached settlements with two other defendant groups — a $270 million deal with OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma and an $85 million settlement with Israeli-owned Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd.
Oklahoma argued the companies and their subsidiaries created a public nuisance by launching an aggressive and misleading marketing campaign that overstated how effective the drugs were for treating chronic pain and understated the risk of addiction. Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter says opioid overdoses killed 4,653 people in the state from 2007 to 2017.
Hunter called Johnson & Johnson a “kingpin” company that was motivated by greed. He specifically pointed to two former Johnson & Johnson subsidiaries, Noramco and Tasmanian Alkaloids, which produced much of the raw opium used by other manufacturers to produce the drugs.
On Monday, Hunter said the Oklahoma case could provide a “road map” for other states to follow in holding drugmakers responsible for the opioid crisis.
“That’s the message to other states: We did it in Oklahoma. You can do it elsewhere,” Hunter said. “Johnson & Johnson will finally be held accountable for thousands of deaths and addictions caused by their activities.”
Among those seated in the courtroom on Monday were Craig and Gail Box, whose son Austin was a 22-year-old standout linebacker for the Oklahoma Sooners when he died of a prescription drug overdose in 2011.
One of the attorneys for the state, Reggie Whitten, said he also lost a son to opioid abuse.
“I feel like my boy is looking down,” Whitten said after the judge’s ruling, his voice cracking with emotion.
Oklahoma pursued the case under the state’s public nuisance statute and presented the judge with a plan to abate the crisis that would cost between $12.6 billion for 20 years and $17.5 billion over 30 years. Attorneys for Johnson & Johnson have said that estimate is wildly inflated. The judge’s award would cover the costs of one year of the state’s abatement plan, funding things like opioid use prevention and addiction treatment.
Attorneys for the company have maintained they were part of a lawful and heavily regulated industry subject to strict federal oversight, including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, during every step of the supply chain. Lawyers for the company said the judgment was a misapplication of public nuisance law.
Sabrina Strong, an attorney for Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries, said the companies have sympathy for those who suffer from substance abuse but called the judge’s decision “flawed.”
“You can’t sue your way out of the opioid abuse crisis,” Strong said. “Litigation is not the answer.”
Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the cases consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio called the Oklahoma judgment “a milestone amid the mounting evidence against the opioid pharmaceutical industry.”
“While public nuisance laws differ in every state, this decision is a critical step forward for the more than 2,000 cities, counties, and towns we represent in the consolidation of federal opioid cases,” they said in a statement.
Also on Monday, the Kentucky Supreme Court declined to review an earlier ruling , making previously secret testimony from former Purdue Pharma President Rickard Sackler and other documents public. The court record was sealed in 2015 as part of a $24 million settlement between Purdue and Kentucky.
The 17 million pages of documents were being shipped Monday from Frankfort to Pike County, where the case originated. The Pike County Circuit Court Clerk’s office could not immediately say how and when they would be available.
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