Opioid epidemic: Judge holds Johnson & Johnson liable for $572m

The Oklahoma case was the first to go to trial out of thousands of lawsuits filed by state and local governments.

A United States judge on Monday found Johnson & Johnson liable for fueling an opioid epidemic in the state of Oklahoma by deceptively marketing painkillers, and ordered the drugmaker to pay damages of $572m.

Judge Thad Balkman of Cleveland County District Court in Norman, Oklahoma delivered his decision in a lawsuit alleging that Johnson & Johnson’s marketing practices fueled the opioid epidemic by flooding the market with painkillers.

Shares of Johnson & Johnson rose five percent following the verdict.

The case brought by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter was the first to go to trial out of thousands of lawsuits filed by state and local governments against opioid manufacturers and distributors.

Hunter had been seeking to make Johnson & Johnson pay more than $17bn to help the state address the epidemic for the next 30 years through addiction treatment and prevention programmes.

The trial came after Oklahoma resolved claims against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP in March for $270m and against Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd in May for $85m, leaving Johnson & Johnson as the lone defendant.

The litigation has been closely watched by plaintiffs in about 2,000 opioid lawsuits pending before an Ohio-state federal judge who has been pushing for a settlement ahead of an October trial.

Some plaintiffs’ lawyers have compared the opioid cases to litigation by states against the tobacco industry that led to a $246bn settlement in 1998.

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.

During a seven-week non-jury trial, lawyers for Oklahoma argued that Johnson & Johnson carried out a years-long marketing campaign that minimised the addictive painkillers’ risks and promoted their benefits.

The state’s lawyers called Johnson & Johnson an opioid “kingpin” and argued that its marketing efforts created a public nuisance as doctors overprescribed the drugs, leading to a surge in overdose deaths in Oklahoma.

Johnson & Johnson has denied wrongdoing. The drugmaker has said its marketing claims had scientific support and that its painkillers, Duragesic and Nucynta, made up a tiny fraction of opioids prescribed in Oklahoma.

The company also said in a statement that since 2008, its painkillers accounted for less than one percent of the US drug market, including generic medications.

Lawyers for New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson have said the case rests on a “radical” interpretation of the state’s public nuisance law.

Johnson & Johnson said on Monday prior to the decision that the state’s attempt to use a public nuisance law to resolve a “complex social problem” was “misguided and legally unsustainable”.

“Not once did the state identify a single Oklahoma doctor who was misled by a single Janssen statement, nor did it prove that Janssen misleadingly marketed opioids or caused any harm in Oklahoma,” John Sparks, Oklahoma counsel for Johnson & Johnson, said in a statement.

Janssen Pharmaceuticals is the healthcare conglomerate’s primary prescription drugs unit.

Johnson & Johnson said it has not set aside a litigation reserve to pay potential damages, and that its policy is to do so once a loss is “probable and can be reasonably estimated”.

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