Oklahoma Republicans took opioid manufacturers to court to recover some of the billions the state has spent dealing with opioid addiction. The first of those cases against Johnson & Johnson reached a verdict today and it was a whopper: more than a half-billion in damages awarded.
A judge Monday found Johnson & Johnson responsible for fueling Oklahoma’s opioid crisis, ordering the health care company to pay $572 million to redress the devastating consequences suffered by the state and its residents.
Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman’s landmark decision is the first to hold a drugmaker culpable for the fallout of years of liberal opioid dispensing that began in the late 199os, sparking a nationwide epidemic of overdose deaths and addiction. More than 400,000 people have died of overdoses from painkillers, heroin and illegal fentanyl since 1999.
“The opioid crisis has ravaged the state of Oklahoma and must be abated immediately,” Balkman said, reading part of his decision aloud from the bench Monday afternoon.
With more than 40 states lined up to pursue similar claims against the pharmaceutical industry, the ruling in the first state case to go to trial could influence both side’s strategies in the months and years to come. Its impact on an enormous federal lawsuit brought by nearly 2,000 cities, counties, Native American tribes and others, which is scheduled to begin in October, is less certain.
“As a matter of law, I find that defendants’ actions caused harm, and those harms are the kinds recognized by [state law] because those actions annoyed, injured or endangered the comfort, repose, health or safety of Oklahomans,” Balkman wrote in the decision.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter (R) had brought suit in 2017 against three major drug companies, accusing them of creating “a public nuisance” by showering the state with opioids, while downplaying the drugs’ addictive potential and persuading physicians to use them even for minor aches and pains. Before the late 1990s, physicians reserved the powerful drugs primarily for cancer and post-surgical pain and end-of-life care.
More than 6,000 Oklahomans have died of painkiller overdoses since 2000, the state charged in court papers, as the number of opioid prescriptions dispensed by pharmacies reached 479 every hour in 2017.
Oklahoma settled with Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of OxyContin, in March, accepting $270 million from the company and its owners, the Sackler family. Most of that will go to a treatment and research center at Oklahoma State University, although the federal government is seeking a portion of the money.
In May, two days before the trial began, the state settled with Teva Pharmaceuticals, an Israeli-based manufacturer of generic drugs, for $85 million.
That left corporate giant Johnson & Johnson, which denied any wrongdoing and chose to fight the accusations in what became a seven-week trial before Balkman. There was no jury.
Should have settled out of court, boys.