Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
Johnson & Johnson will be forced to pay $572 million to compensate for Oklahoma’s opioid overdose woes, a Cleveland County District Court judge announced in a landmark ruling Monday.
Johnson & Johnson was the first drugmaker to head to trial over the opioid epidemic, and Judge Thad Balkman accused the company of being responsible for Oklahoma's in particular. He said in his verdict that the company “compromised the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans."
“The opioid crisis is an imminent danger and menace to Oklahomans,” Balkman said.
Johnson & Johnson will appeal the verdict. The large payout will almost certainly rattle the drugmakers that haven’t already agreed to settle the thousands of opioid-related lawsuits filed by Native American tribes, cities, counties, and states in recent years. The lawsuits, which seek to blame corporations for an overdose crisis that’s killed hundreds of thousands of people since OxyContin hit the market in 1996, have been widely compared to the landmark tobacco industry lawsuits that resulted in a $246 billion settlement in 1998.
Oklahoma settled with OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma back in March and agreed to a massive $270 million payout that allowed the company to skip a widely anticipated trial. In May, the state also settled with Teva Pharmaceutical for $85 million just one day before the trial began. The last defendant Oklahoma blamed for the opioid overdose crisis — pharma juggernaut Johnson & Johnson — pressed on to what became a seven-week trial by judge that lasted through July. In the end, they wound up having to pay more than twice the amount Purdue Pharma — which is more commonly associated with the epidemic — settled for.
Throughout the trial, lawyers for Johnson & Johnson denied wrongdoing by their drug company, Janssen, and argued their drugs made up a small portion of all opioids prescribed in Oklahoma, where 6,000 people have died from overdoses since 2000. The New Jersey-based company’s painkillers — Duragesic and Nucynta — weren’t as ubiquitous as OxyContin or Percocet, for example. (The maker of Percocet, Endo International, reached a $10 million settlement with two Ohio counties and will avoid a bellwether opioid trial in October.)
Yet Oklahoma’s attorney general, Mike Hunter, pushed for at least $17 billion from Johnson & Johnson to help the state fund addiction treatment and prevention programs. The state’s lawyers argued the company’s opioid marketing campaign amounted to a violation of the state’s public nuisance law through aggressive advertising and attempts to minimize the drugs’ addictive potential.
Another landmark Cleveland-based trial — this one in Ohio — is also set to begin in October. That massive, multi-state case against multiple pharmaceutical companies is the result of nearly 2,000 lawsuits against opioid-makers and distributors like Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson. But it’s possible a settlement will be reached before trial — an outcome the judge is openly and aggressively seeking.
In all, Purdue, Teva, Johnson & Johnson, McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen are still scheduled to face trial in Ohio, unless they reach settlements.
Cover image: In this April 26, 2017, file photo, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter speaks at a news conference in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)