When the trial of Johnson & Johnson began on May 28th, the United States was at the beginning of witnessing a landmark case with nationwide repercussions. The state of Oklahoma was one of the first to openly acknowledge the growing opioid crisis. As a result of the state's need for help, the government decided to sue drug manufacturer Johnson & Johnson. The state alleged that the company fueled the opioid crisis, causing devastation for so many of its citizens. In late August of 2019, a verdict was reached. In November of 2019, the judge revised the verdict for the Johnson & Johnson opioid lawsuit.
The State of Oklahoma sues Johnson & Johnson: Overview
In the Johnson & Johnson opioid lawsuit, Oklahoma alleged that the pharmaceutical company contributed to the opioid crisis that took thousands of American lives. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), this widespread drug addiction took more than 47,000 lives just in 2017.
The Attorney General of Oklahoma, Mike Hunter, oversaw the lawsuit. He alleged that that the manufacturer's subsidiary Janssen spread misinformation about the drug to doctors and the public. Specifically, he cited a deceptive and aggressive marketing campaign.
The lawsuit also alleged that the manufacturers' campaign to health care professionals understated the dangers of addiction. This led to doctors overprescribing opioids for pain in Oklahoma. As a result, thousands of overdoses, deaths and related harms from addiction, such as child welfare cases and crime, occurred.
The company chose to deny any wrongdoing and fought the allegations in court.
After presiding over a seven-week civil trial that ended in July, Judge Thad Balkman delivered his decision. He found Johnson & Johnson guilty. He ordered the manufacturer to pay $572 million to the state.
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Two months later, in November of 2019, the judge revised this early ruling and told the drugmaker to make a one-time payment of $465 million instead.
His original ruling on Aug. 26 for $572 million caused confusion among attorneys on both sides over his calculations. The $107 million that he removed corrected a math error that he acknowledged making. At a hearing last month, he said he had set aside $107.6 million to support programs treating addiction in babies exposed to opioids in the womb — when really he meant to set aside roughly $107,600.
Johnson & Johnson responded to the verdict. In a statement shared with NPR, Johnson & Johnson made clear it plans to appeal the judgment, stating "...it is neither supported by the facts nor the law."
Furthermore, the company representatives stated that "We recognize the opioid crisis is a tremendously complex public health issue and have deep sympathy for everyone affected... We do not believe litigation is the answer and are continuing to work with partners to find solutions."
What's next for lawsuits against drug manufacturers?
More than 40 states are pursuing similar claims against the pharmaceutical industry. This ruling, in the first state case to go to trial, will influence strategies for states and drug companies in these lawsuits moving forward. Many agreed with the decision, hoping it would be a model for all related lawsuits to come. Specifically, it brings hope to a large federal lawsuit brought by nearly 2,000 cities, counties, Native American tribes, and others scheduled to begin in Cleveland, Ohio, in October.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter is encouraging this hope. He said the Oklahoma case could provide a “road map” for other states to follow to hold large pharmaceutical companies responsible.
“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.”
“They’ve been the principal origin for the active pharmaceutical ingredient in prescription opioids in the country for the last two decades,” Hunter said after the trial ended July 15. “It is one of the most important elements of causation with regard to why the defendants … are responsible for the epidemic in the country and in Oklahoma.”