An Oklahoma judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay US$572.1 million to the state for its part in fueling an opioid epidemic by deceptively marketing addictive painkillers, Reuters reports.
The state’s attorney general had filed the lawsuit, seeking US$17 billion to address the impact of the drug crisis on Oklahoma. It had been considered a bellwether for other litigation nationwide over the opioid epidemic.
J&J said it would appeal the decision.
Opioids were involved in almost 400,000 overdose deaths from 1999 to 2017, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 2000, some 6,000 Oklahomans have died from opioid overdoses, according to the state’s lawyers.
Roughly 2,500 lawsuits have been brought by states, counties and municipalities nationally seeking to hold drugmakers responsible for opioid abuse nationwide. Oklahoma’s case was the first to go to trial. Some drugmakers have chosen to settle cases.
In holding J&J liable after a seven-week, non-jury trial, Judge Thad Balkman of Cleveland County District Court in Norman, Oklahoma, said the state proved that J&J’s misleading marketing and promotion of its Duragesic and Nucynta painkillers created a public nuisance.
“The opioid crisis is an imminent danger and menace to Oklahomans,” Balkman said on Monday.
Oklahoma wanted J&J to help it address the epidemic for the next 30 years by funding addiction treatment and prevention programs.
Balkman said in his written ruling that the award covered only one year of addressing the crisis because Oklahoma did not demonstrate the time and costs needed beyond that.
J&J said it will ask that the award be put on hold during an appeal process that could stretch into 2021. The company also said Oklahoma failed to show that its products and activities had created a public nuisance.
“You can’t sue your way out of the opioid abuse crisis,” Sabrina Strong, a lawyer for J&J, said at a news conference after the verdict. “Everyone must come together to address this. But J&J did not cause the opioid crisis.”
The case was brought by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, who alleged that J&J’s marketing practices helped fuel the opioid epidemic by flooding the market with painkillers.
“Johnson & Johnson will finally be held accountable for thousands of deaths and addictions caused by their actions,” Hunter said.
The trial came after Oklahoma had resolved claims against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP in March for US$270 million and Teva in May for US$85 million, leaving J&J as the lone defendant.
The verdict came as two Ohio counties prepare for a scheduled October trial before a federal judge in Cleveland. About 2,000 lawsuits out of some 2,500 filed nationwide are consolidated in the case in Cleveland.
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