$572 million verdict handed down in Oklahoma opioid trial
NORMAN — A judge returned a $572 million verdict against Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries Monday, ruling their misleading marketing and distribution of opioid painkillers triggered a deadly crisis in Oklahoma.
"The opioid crisis has ravaged the state of Oklahoma. It must be abated immediately," Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman said in announcing the verdict.
The judge specifically agreed with the state of Oklahoma that Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries created a public nuisance that "compromised the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans."
The verdict came in the first major lawsuit against opioid manufacturers to make it to trial. It was announced more than a month after the close of testimony in a nonjury trial that lasted more than six weeks and attracted international media attention.
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The state had asked for more than $17 billion, saying it would take years to undo the damage.
The judge, though, explained in his written order that his verdict for the state of $572,102,028 covers year one of an abatement plan.
"Though several of the State's witnesses testified that the plan 'will take at least 20 years' to work, the State did not present sufficient evidence of the amount of time and costs necessary, beyond year one, to abate the Opioid Crisis," the judge wrote. "The Court will enter such further Orders pertaining to the implementation of the Abatement Plan as necessary and in due course."
There was confusion after the verdict was announced whether the state could come back and seek additional funding if the crisis persists.
Under the abatement plan detailed in the written order, most of the funding — $232,947,710 — would go toward providing assessments and comprehensive treatment and recovery services to all Oklahomans in need of them. Another $103,277,835 would go toward pain management efforts.
The judge concluded Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries acted unlawfully and that their "false, misleading and dangerous marketing campaigns" caused exponentially increasing rates of addiction, overdose deaths and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.
"The increase in opioid addiction and overdose deaths following the parallel increase in opioid sales in Oklahoma was not a coincidence; these variables were 'causally linked,'" the judge wrote.
Evidence presented during the trial revealed that Johnson & Johnson blanketed the state with sales representatives who were given financial incentives to persuade doctors to prescribe more opioids.
Johnson & Johnson specifically targeted doctors who were already high prescribers for extra sales visits, often buying them meals and leaving behind small gifts, testimony revealed.
Witnesses for Johnson & Johnson contended the drug companies had done nothing wrong.
Company officials testified that the marketing messages they presented were tightly regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration and contained warnings that opioids were associated with major risks, including risks of addiction and death.
Johnson & Johnson attorneys also argued the state was attempting to misapply the state's public nuisance law.
Prescription opioids were linked to more than 6,100 Oklahoma deaths from 2000-2017.
Oklahoma's lawsuit originally named two other groups of pharmaceutical companies as additional defendants, but they were dropped from the lawsuit after they approved settlement agreements with the state. A group headed by Purdue Pharma agreed to pay $270 million, while a group headed by Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc., agreed to pay $85 million.
Oklahoma's opioid lawsuit has drawn international attention because hundreds of similar lawsuits are currently awaiting trial, including more than 1,700 that have been consolidated in a major federal court action pending in Ohio.
Shortly before the trial against Johnson & Johnson began, the state of Oklahoma dropped fraud and other complaints and narrowed the case to the single issue of public nuisance.
Balkman ruled that Johnson & Johnson and its affiliates helped trigger the state’s opioid crisis by carrying out an elaborate and deceptive marketing campaign that portrayed opioids as being less addictive and deadly than they really were.
Witnesses for the state challenged low addiction rates claimed by Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries. The witnesses said the marketing efforts were highly successful. They cited statistics showing that enough opioids were dispensed in 2017 for every adult in Oklahoma to have the equivalent of 156 hydrocodone 10 milligram tablets. As sales of opioids increased, so did overdose deaths, testimony revealed.
Balkman’s decision means Johnson & Johnson must pay the state to abate the problems created.
Johnson & Johnson plans to appeal the ruling to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.