Pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson was recently ordered to pay $572 million by an Oklahoma judge in a case that explored the company’s relationship to the opioid epidemic.
As part of the ruling, Cleveland County District Judge, Thad Balkman, said that Johnson & Johnson’s aggressive marketing of opioid painkillers helped to create Oklahoma’s current opioid crisis.
The Oklahoma attorney general argued that by claiming the medications were more effective (and less addictive) than they really were, Johnson & Johnson and it’s pharmaceutical division, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, created a public nuisance that caused billions of dollars worth of damage.
The judge agreed, stating in his 42-page opinion that Johnson & Johnson and Janssen had told doctors that symptoms of addiction in patients were actually signs of under-treated pain. The result, states the opinion, was a public health crisis that constituted an “imminent danger and menace” to 4 million Oklahoma residents.
Understanding the Arguments Against Johnson & Johnson and Janssen
To date, the opioid crisis is estimated to have cost the United States $500 billion. Both prescription and illegal opioids caused or contributed to nearly 48,000 U.S. deaths in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In that year, the odds of dying from an opioid overdose were one in 96, while the odds of dying in a car accident were one in 103.
In the June 2019 trial against J&J and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter argued that Johnson & Johnson profited from the sales and marketing of opioid medications that caused the deaths of over 4,000 Oklahoma residents from opioid misuse over the past 20 years.
J&J disputed that claim, stating that it was responsible for less than one percent of Oklahoma’s total opioid market, and that it could not be responsible for opioid deaths caused by oxycodone or hydrocodone because neither it nor Janssen have ever manufactured, sold, or marketed those medications. Oxycodone was manufactured and sold under the brand name OxyContin by Purdue Pharmaceuticals, which settled with the state of Oklahoma in lieu of proceeding to trial.
Although Johnson & Johnson did not manufacture or sell oxycodone, the Oklahoma attorney general alleged that the company and two of its subsidiaries, Tasmanian Alkaloids and Noramco, supplied Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies with the raw materials necessary to make oxycodone and other opioids.
Johnson & Johnson and Janssen also manufactured and sold fentanyl patches under the brand name Duragesic, says the attorney general. Oklahoma currently has more fentanyl prescriptions per capita than any other U.S. state.
Expert Witnesses in the Oklahoma Opioid Trial
During the trial, multiple expert witnesses for the state of Oklahoma expressed dismay at Johnson & Johnson’s actions. Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University, stated that Johnson & Johnson had played a role in the creation of three different types of opioids: natural, semi-synthetic, and synthetic. He also stated that he had attempted to visit Tasmanian Alkaloids but came away with the understanding that his presence was unwelcome.
Oklahoma mental health commissioner, Terri White, also appeared as an expert witness for the state. White clarified that she believed that both Johnson & Johnson and Janssen’s marketing of their own opioid products and their connection to the manufacturing of opioid products by other companies contributed to Oklahoma’s opioid crisis.
Further Battles Ahead Over the Opioid Crisis
The $572 million Oklahoma verdict represents only about 5% of the original total sought by the state’s attorney general — a verdict of $17 billion. Both numbers are dwarfed by the $82 billion in revenue Johnson & Johnson reported in 2018.
Yet some experts estimate that the eventual judgments against pharmaceutical companies could top $150 billion. The Ohio litigation seeks a $100 billion settlement with various opioid manufacturers and distributors, and pending state cases could net another $50 billion in verdicts and settlements.
The results of the Oklahoma lawsuit could also affect how similar lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson, Janssen, and other pharmaceutical companies proceed in the coming months. For example, a multistate federal lawsuit currently before a judge in Ohio consolidates 1,500 similar cases against drugmakers related to the opioid epidemic. The ruling in the Oklahoma case and the resulting verdict could affect how attorneys plan their strategies for the Ohio cases. The results of Johnson & Johnson’s planned appeal of the Oklahoma verdict may also have an effect on the Ohio cases.