On August 26, a judge in Oklahoma ruled against multinational corporation Johnson & Johnson (J&J) in a lawsuit regarding the company’s marketing of opioids within the state. The company was ordered by Judge Thad Balkman to pay more than $572 million for pushing prescriptions of powerful drugs while downplaying the associated risks of addiction.

The State’s Argument

In the trial, Johnson & Johnson, along with its subsidiary Janssen, were accused of engaging in a sales push of opioids that started in the 1990s. It was alleged by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter that the marketing of J&J was misleading and that the company’s actions resulted in something that negatively impacted the public. Hunter claims that the company’s negligence created what he described as a “public nuisance” that claimed the lives of more than 6,000 users in his state alone.

Johnson & Johnson’s Argument

The company denied any wrongdoing. Its attorney, John Sparks, contended that the public nuisance law was being misinterpreted and did not apply here. He argued that it had, in previous cases, been limited to disputes that involved property or public spaces, which was not what was being alleged in the case. He further noted that the public nuisance principle had been rejected by courts in other states when attempts were made to extend it outside of these two areas.

The Judge’s Finding

The judge found that the company had engaged in misleading marketing. The company had engaged in a sales push targeting doctors with an “education” program that never touched upon the risk that those prescribed opioids would become addicted. The company aggressively marketed the drugs through sales representatives who were not educated about the risks of addiction, company-funded articles in medical journals, and paid speakers. All of this was designed to reach doctors in order to get them to prescribe these drugs.

It was Judge Thad Balkman’s view that this promotion of the drugs did, indeed, create a nuisance within Oklahoma. He pointed to the opioid crisis, which he described as ravaging the state, which has caused numerous overdose deaths and other societal ills.

As such, the judge ruled that Johnson & Johnson must pay $572 million – a decision to which the company objected. The money is, as the judge put it, to “immediately remediate the nuisance.”

The abatement money is set to be applied to pay for approximately a year of addiction treatment and prevention programs in the state. The verdict was far less than the $17 billion that the attorney general had been seeking, which the state considered to be the approximate cost to treat and prevent opioid addiction in Oklahoma over the next 30 years.

Although the judge did find that Johnson & Johnson had created a public nuisance with a campaign of misleading marketing, he was not sufficiently convinced of the $17 billion amount that the state’s Attorney General was seeking for abatement. He felt that the state had not sufficiently proven the time frame that it would take to address the opioid problem in Oklahoma – that only the need for the first year had been adequately demonstrated.

What Comes Next?

Johnson & Johnson disputes the findings of the case. It maintains that it did not create an opioid crisis in the state, and it plans to appeal.

However, the case is seen as a litmus test for other such cases. in many instances, pharmaceutical companies have chosen to settle rather than do battle in court. Among them have been Purdue Pharma, which reached a $270 million settlement with Oklahoma earlier this year. Another instance, which was also in Oklahoma, involved Teva Pharmaceuticals, who settled for $85 million.

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