An Oklahoma judge has ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million after determining the company bears some responsibility for the nation’s opioid epidemic. The trial is being called a “landmark” case and its outcome could result in more drug manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies facing penalties for the ongoing crisis.
How Was It Determined that Johnson & Johnson Should Be Liable for the Opioid Crisis?
The consensus is Johnson & Johnson and other drug manufacturers downplayed the risk of addiction to opioid medication. They were also found to have overstated the benefits and used misleading marketing ploys to encourage the use of their drugs.
Johnson & Johnson supplies opiate ingredients to drug makers throughout the country for use in the manufacturing of hydrocodone, fentanyl, morphine, and oxycodone. Despite the company producing only two opioid medications, because they advertised opioids as having a “low risk of abuse and a low danger” in their promotional materials, the state argued it is responsible for misleading consumers.
Oklahoma sought $17.5 billion to be paid over 30 years, but the court determined that the state hadn’t proven that the company should be responsible for more than one year of the costs associated with the crisis.
Precedent-Setting Verdict for Drug Manufacturers
Despite getting only a portion of what it was seeking, the verdict was considered a victory for the state and a major blog to pharmaceutical companies. It marks the first time any drugmaker has been found liable for its role in the nation’s problems with painkillers.
Both Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals have settled lawsuits out of court this year for millions of dollars, but the companies denied having a role in the opioid epidemic. Purdue Pharma has offered to settle 2000 additional cases against it but continues to deny the allegations in the lawsuits.
Purdue is viewed as the most recognizable opioid manufacturer – it developed and marketed OxyContin, which could be why it is more open to settling cases. It knows there is more evidence that can be used against it.
The verdict in the Johnson & Johnson case is considered precedent-setting because of how it will affect cases against other drug manufacturers.
Drug Manufacturers’ Actions Called “Public Nuisance”
The state argued Johnson & Johnson’s actions were a public nuisance, which is an argument that’s typically used in public property lawsuits. Oklahoma has expanded public nuisance laws which made it possible for lawyers to apply the statute and claim that corporate activity should be covered under the law. The laws consider actions that interfere with or obstruct the rights of the community as criminal.
It might now be possible for other states with the same broad public nuisance laws to use the argument since it was successful in Oklahoma.
Regardless of whether states follow suit in the same manner, what’s notable is the forcefulness of the judge’s opinion. Judge Thad Balkman determined that Johnson & Johnson engaged in “false, misleading, and dangerous marketing” and the company’s efforts led to “exponentially increasing rates of addiction [and] overdose death.”
What the judge used to determine the ruling in this case are things that other drug companies have done – a factor that could be significant in future cases. It also showed that judges and juries are willing to pin the blame for opioid addiction on other parties aside from the addicted person.
The money paid by Johnson & Johnson will initially go to the state and Oklahoma lawmakers will determine how it is used. It could be put toward public medication disposal, addiction treatment programs, pain services, and education programs, but will not be enough to fund everything needed to abate the state’s opioid crisis as it stands. Johnson & Johnson has already announced its intention to appeal the ruling. The company has a reputation for fighting back against lawsuits and has deep enough pockets to do so.