Judge orders Johnson & Johnson to pay Oklahoma $572 million for fueling state's opioid crisis

/ CBS News

Johnson & Johnson fined in opioid lawsuit

An Oklahoma judge found Johnson & Johnson guilty in fueling the state's opioid crises and ordered the corporation to pay $572 million in a landmark ruling with vast implications. The ruling by Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman in Norman in favor of the state against Johnson & Johnson is one of the biggest monetary awards in U.S. history.

In making his ruling, Judge Balkman said Johnson & Johnson bears responsibility for helping to fuel the state's opioid epidemic by aggressively marketing painkillers. Judge Balkman took about a month to make this judgement after a seven-week trial.

"We showed how the company repeatedly ignored warnings by the federal governments and its own scientific advisers about the dangers of its drugs and the risks of marketing its products the way it did," said Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter during a press conference on Monday. "We have proven that Johnson & Johnson have built its billion dollar brand out of greed and on the backs of pain and suffering of innocent people."

A brief statement by Johnson & Johnson said, "Johnson & Johnson plans to appeal the opioid judgment in Oklahoma."

Known for infant shampoo and other family-friendly products, Johnson & Johnson has a lesser-known pharmaceutical division, Janssen Pharmaceuticals. Johnson & Johnson said its opioid products account for less than a percentage of the Oklahoma market, but the state of Oklahoma disputed that.

JUST IN: Judge rules against Johnson & Johnson in opioid case. The company has been ordered to pay $572 million https://t.co/H9n7JKbYS7 pic.twitter.com/2YHQhmFTwN

— CBS News (@CBSNews) August 26, 2019

Earlier this year, Oklahoma argued that Johnson & Johnson and its pharmaceutical subsidiary, Janssen, helped create a "public nuisance" by intensely marketing opioid painkillers while downplaying the risk of addiction. The state had requested billions to compensate for damages caused by the deaths of more than 4,000 state residents from opioid abuse over the past 20 years.

"We can never bring back those who have never lost their lives because Johnson and Johnson executes made the calculated and cold-blooded decision that they were going to produce a mutant strain of poppy, corner the market and supply massive amounts of the active ingredients for other companies to manufacture opioids around the nation and in Oklahoma," Hunter said.

This was the first such case against a drugmaker to go to trial and it could set a precedent for cases across the country. Judge Balkman's ruling could give lawyers a new strategy for holding large corporations accountable.

"This is very personal to all of us," said state attorney Reggie Whitten. "My partner lost a niece to this opioid epidemic. I lost my firstborn son to the opioid epidemic."

The 2017 filing named multiple defendants, including Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals USA. Both companies settled out of court for a combined total of $355 million, without admitting wrongdoing. But Johnson & Johnson and Janssen decided to go to trial.

"When you're right, you fight," said Johnson & Johnson's attorney, Sabrina Strong, a partner at O'Melveny and Myers. "And that's what you're seeing here. We have sympathy for those who suffer from substance abuse. But Janssen did not cause the opioid crisis in this country."

Hunter told CBS News correspondent Omar Villafranca, "They made money whether they sold their drugs or when somebody else sold opioids, because they were supplying everybody else. And this 'one percent' thing, that's a complete canard."

The "public nuisance" argument that was previously used successfully to fight Big Tobacco could possibly be used in opioid lawsuits set to go to trial in Ohio this fall, which have been consolidated from more than 1,500 opioid lawsuits filed by state, local and tribal governments against pharmaceutical companies. An earlier CBS News report pointed out how Oklahoma's legal fight with Johnson & Johnson could shape negotiations on how to resolve the Ohio lawsuits.

In addition to the cases in Ohio, suits were filed last week in West Virginia accusing Johnson & Johnson, as well as Teva, of misrepresenting the risks of their opioid products. Johnson & Johnson produces a fentanyl patch in addition to baby powder and baby shampoo.

First published on August 26, 2019 / 4:36 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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