Pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson fueled Oklahoma’s opioid crisis through a “false, deceptive and misleading” marketing and drug distribution campaign, and now must pay the state $572 million to help diminish the burden the deadly epidemic has had, a judge ruled on Monday.
Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman announced the verdict following a seven-week trial that ended on July 15. Balkman’s landmark decision is the first in the nation to hold a drug company responsible for its role in contributing to the opioid crisis. There are hundreds of similar lawsuits pending across the U.S. in state and federal courts
“The opioid crisis has ravaged the state of Oklahoma. It must be abated immediately,” Balkman said as he announced his verdict.
Johnson & Johnson said they plan to appeal the decision and have denied any wrongdoing.
Attorney General Mike Hunter brought the lawsuit against three drug manufacturers in 2017, alleging they intentionally created an opioid epidemic with an aggressive marketing campaign that exaggerated the drugs’ benefits and downplayed their addictive and potentially dangerous qualities.
Johnson & Johnson and one of its subsidiaries, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, were the only defendants in the case by the time the trial began in May. The state earlier this year settled with Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, for $270 million. And later, the state settled with Israel-based Teva Pharmaceuticals for $85 million.
Johnson & Johnson manufactures two opioid pills and its subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, makes Duragesic, a fentanyl skin patch.
Johnson & Johnson and its “pain-management franchise” embarked on a misleading marketing and promotional scheme in an effort to reach doctors to promote its opioids, Balkman wrote in the 42-page judgment. That effort included sales representatives targeting certain physicians, funding literature in medical journals and convincing doctors that patients were not suffering from opioid addiction, but from the under-treatment of pain.
The company also influenced doctors through dinners and presentations, according to the judgment.
A key element of Johnson & Johnson’s campaign was to promote the idea that pain was under-treated in the U.S., the judgment states.
“All of these many different efforts were intended to influence the prescribing behavior of physicians, and thus, increase Defendants’ profit from opioids,” the judgment states.
Attorneys for Oklahoma built the case entirely around the claim Johnson & Johnson created a public nuisance by creating the state’s opioid crisis. The public nuisance claim argues the opioid epidemic has affected the health of communities at large and not only individual drug users.
Unintentional opioid overdoses killed more than 2,100 people in Oklahoma for 2011 to 2015.
“There can be no question that this nuisance affects entire communities, neighborhoods or a considerable number of persons,” Balkman wrote in the judgment. “This nuisance has negatively impacted the entire State.”
Though the state’s attorneys asked the company to pay about $17.5 billion over 30 years to “clean up” the state’s opioid addiction problem, the court found the state did not present enough evidence to support that amount.
The $572 million from Johnson & Johnson will go toward addiction treatment and preventative programs to help combat the opioid crisis that has killed thousands of people in the state. Balkman calculated $572 million to be the cost to carry an abatement plan out for one year.
In an emailed statement sent by a spokesman on Monday afternoon, Johnson & Johnson said the company plans to appeal Balkman’s verdict.
“Janssen did not cause the opioid crisis in Oklahoma, and neither the facts nor the law support this outcome,” said Michael Ullmann, executive vice president and general counsel for Johnson & Johnson, in the statement.
“We recognize the opioid crisis is a tremendously complex public health issue and we have deep sympathy for those affected. We are working with partners to find ways to help those in need.”
Johnson & Johnson’s attorneys argued at trial the company and its subsidiaries marketed its FDA-approved drugs responsibly and the drugs serve an important medical purpose. The drugs filled a nation-wide need in treating chronic pain, attorneys said.
“Janssen went out to try to produce innovative products to deal with the real consequences of chronic pain,” attorney Larry Ottaway said during the trial’s closing arguments. “This is not a problem with a simple answer.”
The company’s attorneys argued its drugs were linked to few cases of misuse, addiction or overdose in Oklahoma.
Ullmann is his statement said the judgment was a “misapplication of public nuisance law.” Johnson & Johnson will move to pause the enforcement of the judgment while it appeals the decision, a process that is expected to stretch into 2021, according to the statement.
Hunter called the verdict a victory “for the state of Oklahoma, the nation and everyone who has lost a loved one because of an opioid overdose.”
“It is my hope that this judgment will provide some solace to the thousands of families, who have tragically lost a loved one due to an opioid overdose,” Hunter said in an emailed news release.
“It should also inspire a sense of optimism in those still struggling with an opioid addiction because we remain committed to abating the crisis, thus bringing about a brighter future for those suffering and our state.”