Johnson and Johnson Loses Multi-Million Dollar Opioid Lawsuit

March 11, 2020

Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $572 million to the state of Oklahoma on Monday after a judge found that the company was marketing opioids and admitted to some responsibility for the state’s opioid crisis.


The case is one of hundreds of opioid-related lawsuits ongoing around the country, and as the first one to reach a verdict. The decision is likely to reverberate beyond Oklahoma.


“You can argue that there are problems with the decision. You can argue that it’s a lot less than the $17 billion that Oklahoma asked for. But you can’t take away the fact that we now have a decision, decided by a United States court, in which a large amount of damages were given,” says Nicolas Terry, executive director of the Hall Center for Law and Health at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. Two other pharmaceutical companies, Purdue Pharma and Teva, were initially defendants in the same Oklahoma suit, but settled this issue separately rather than go to trial.


Monday’s decision in Oklahoma rests on the state’s public nuisance law. They’re marking actions that interfere with the rights of the community as criminal. Usually, these laws are applied in situations where something interferes with land, roads, or water…but Oklahoma’s is particularly broad.


“The victory was not a foregone conclusion,” says Nora Freeman Engstrom, an expert in tort law and a professor at Stanford Law School. “The case only involved one defendent, and public nuisance claims can be difficult for plaintiffs, particularly when the underlying conduct does not involve property but product liability.”


Oklahoma’s public nuisance law is different from those in other states, this case might not determine the outcomes of legislation in other states. Terry says, “other states could go in different directions. But there is forcefulness of the judge’s opinion in this case. Judge Thad Balkman found that Johnson & Johnson engaged in “false, misleading, and dangerous marketing” that caused “exponentially increasing rates of addiction and overdose death,” which is significant, Engstrom says.


“What is striking is how devastating Judge Balkman’s factual conclusions were,” she says. “And how similar they are to allegations made against other manufacturers. Everything he objected to, others have allegedly done. It’s a stinging indictment to marketing practices engaged in, not just by Johnson & Johnson, but by other defendants.” Those conclusions, she says, are not specifically tied to any one law.


This week it was reported, by CNN, that Purdue Pharma offered to pay $10 billion to $12 billion to settle all of its pending state and federal opioid lawsuits. The Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, said that they would contribute $3 billion and give up ownership of the company. The company would also declare bankruptcy. Terry says he does not think the Oklahoma decision supposedly caused that proposed resolution, and that Purdue had probably been having those conversations for some time. Their decision to settle, compared with Johnson & Johnson’s push towards trial, concludes to the differences in the size of the companies and the company cultures.


“Johnson & Johnson made the call that they were going to fight. This is a company that fights lawsuits,” he says. Johnson & Johnson also has deeper pockets than Purdue, is also too big to declare bankruptcy the way Purdue had.                       

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