Judge Rules Johnson & Johnson Bears Responsibility In Oklahoma's Opioid Crisis

Judge Thad Balkman ordered the health care company to pay $572 million.

An Oklahoma judge on Monday determined drugmaker Johnson & Johnson is responsible for helping fuel the opioid epidemic through its marketing of powerful painkillers.

Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman ordered the health care company to pay $572.1 million in damages related to the epidemic.

“The opioid crisis has ravaged the state of Oklahoma and must be abated immediately,” Balkman said from the bench on Monday.

Monday’s ruling is the first in some 2,000 lawsuits by state and local governments seeking to hold Johnson & Johnson, as well as other health care companies, responsible for an epidemic that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says caused a record 47,600 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2017.

“As a matter of law, I find that defendants’ actions caused harm, and those harms are the kinds recognized by [state law] because those actions annoyed, injured or endangered the comfort, repose, health or safety of Oklahomans,” Balkman wrote in his decision.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter sued the drug manufacturer in 2017, alleging J&J, along with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd, downplayed opioids’ addictive risks through deceptive marketing campaigns.

J&J, which marketed the painkillers Duragesic and Nucynta, was “the kingpin behind this public health emergency,” Hunter said.

“At the root of this crisis was Johnson & Johnson, a company that literally created the poppy that became the source of the opioid crisis,” Oklahoma charged.

Hunter attempted to argue that J&J created a “public nuisance” in the state of Oklahoma, a statute more commonly used against the likes of loud neighbors and brothels. But Hunter employed the law to argue the drug company’s actions did “annoy, injure and endanger the comfort, repose, health and safety of others,” and “render Oklahomans insecure in life and in the use of property.”

The state resolved its claims against Purdue and Teva earlier this year, for $270 million and $85 million, respectively.

Hunter asked that J&J be ordered to pay $17.5 billion over the course of 30 years to go toward treatment, social services, law enforcement and other resources needed to continue combatting the opioid crisis.

J&J has denied any wrongdoing on the part of its pharmaceutical offshoot, Janssen, and has attempted to point to the role doctors, patients, pharmacists and drug dealers have played in the crisis.

The company said Monday it would appeal Balkman’s ruling.

“Janssen did not cause the opioid crisis in Oklahoma, and neither the facts nor the law support this outcome,” Michael Ullmann, J&J’s general counsel, said in a statement. “We recognize the opioid crisis is a tremendously complex public health issue and we have deep sympathy for everyone affected. We are working with partners to find ways to help those in need.”

This story has been updated with a statement from Johnson & Johnson.

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