On Tuesday, April 28, a historic opioid trial was launched in Oklahoma against Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceuticals. This case is the first major trial of nearly 2,000 nationwide cases in which states, cities, and municipalities are attempting to hold opioid makers accountable for the prescription opioid epidemic.
The start of this trial came on the heels of settlements from the other two listed defendants, Purdue Pharma, and Teva Pharmaceuticals. In response to allegations that the companies contributed to the state’s opioid painkiller epidemic, Purdue, the maker of OxyContin, agreed to pay a $270 million settlement for its role in the opioid crisis and Teva Pharmaceuticals, one of the largest generic drug manufacturers, agreed to pay an $85 million settlement. Both companies settled without admission of any wrongdoing. Now Johnson & Johnson and Janssen Pharmaceuticals are the only remaining defendants, but they are not going down without a fight.
Johnson & Johnson’s Involvement In The Opioid Crisis
Although recently, Johnson & Johnson has become infamous for litigation related to its contaminated talc products, the company also spent years marketing the extended-use opioid pill Nucynta (which it sold for $1 billion in 2015) as well as the painkiller Duragesic.
The state of Oklahoma claimed that beginning in the 1990s, Johnson & Johnson, along with Purdue and Teva, marketed their opioid products as “safe and effective for everyday pain” and downplayed their addictive qualities. The state further claimed that using this misleading marketing, Johnson & Johnson orchestrated a “multimillion-dollar brainwashing campaign” that pushed doctors to prescribe more opioids creating a drug oversupply.
Johnson & Johnson allegedly may have also been motivated to boost prescriptions because it also grew and imported raw materials opioid manufacturers like Purdue used.
Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman has set aside two months for the case. The trial will be heard in Norman, Oklahoma without a jury and be live-streamed to the public. Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter focused the case’s efforts on Johnson & Johnson, alleging the company “acted as a drug “kingpin,” created a public nuisance, cost the state billions of dollars.”
According to the facts brought by the state of Oklahoma, 4,653 Oklahomans died of unintentional overdoses involving prescription opioids between 2007-2017. He also stated that there were more than 28,000 admissions for opioid and heroin treatment through state services from 2012 to 2018. 135 opioid pills were available for every adult in Cleveland County, Oklahoma, and 149,183 sales visits were made to doctors in Oklahoma between 1999 and 2005.
The state of Oklahoma stated that the public deserves to know whether the company targeted children, the elderly, or veterans for opioid painkillers, and whether it blocked legislation and regulatory action aimed at limiting the availability of opioids.
Johnson & Johnson’s Response
Naturally, Johnson & Johnson and Janssen Pharmaceuticals have denied all allegations, asserting that they did nothing but try to treat these pain conditions. Counsel for the defendants noted that there are zero documented cases of addictions or death that can be attributed to Janssen’s opioid medications.
In response to the state of Oklahoma’s claim that both Johnson & Johnson and Janssen were involved in misleading marketing ploys, Janssen said its marketing has always been “appropriate and responsible”. The defendants pointed out that labels for their pain medications were both FDA-approved and provided clear information about the risks. During its statements, Johnson & Johnson also played a video encouraging children to avoid taking the prescription drugs of others. They concluded that the company was protecting children from the dangers of these medications, and that “the State’s suggestion to the contrary is false and reckless.”
Johnson & Johnson also claimed that the state’s “public nuisance” accusation was misused. Public nuisance charges, referring to “unreasonable, unwarranted, or unlawful interference with a right common to the general public” are typically reserved for property or environmental cases. The defendants argued however that Janssen provided lawfully prescribed medically necessary medications.
It was further pointed out that the state of Oklahoma ignores basic facts in that Johnson & Johnson did not manufacture, sell, or market the FDA-approved medicines made by other companies.
Being the first trial of its kind, this case has the potential to set a precedent for other states looking to hold these companies responsible for mass devastation in the future. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that the opioid crisis has led to a record 47,600 opioid-related overdoses nationwide in 2017 alone. However, it seems as though proving this case will be an uphill battle for the state of Oklahoma.
Although the state asserts that the evidence demonstrates these drug companies have “ignored years of well-documented scientific histories of deadly addiction epidemics,” many legal experts predict the biggest hurdle will be connecting only one manufacturer of opioids to the harms wrought by the entire industry. As the defendants pointed out during their statement, the state needs to prove that Janssen’s marketing statements alone were misleading, that doctors acted on Janssen’s statements, and that patients who took the drug as prescribed became addicted or died. With Purdue and Teva not involved in the trial, the likelihood that Johnson & Johnson will be held responsible for millions in damages significantly decreases.