Sunday 20 October 2019

Johnson & Johnson ordered to pay 572m dollars in opioid case

The firm and its subsidiaries are expected to appeal against the ruling in Oklahoma.

The judge said the opioid crisis ‘must be abated immediately’ (Keith Srakocic/AP)
The judge said the opioid crisis ‘must be abated immediately’ (Keith Srakocic/AP)

By Sean Murphy, Associated Press

A judge in Oklahoma has found Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries helped fuel the state’s opioid crisis and ordered the consumer products giant to pay 572 million US dollars (£469m).

Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman’s ruling followed the first state opioid case to make it to trial and could help shape negotiations over roughly 1,500 similar lawsuits filed by state, local and tribal governments consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio.

“The opioid crisis has ravaged the state of Oklahoma,” Mr Balkman said before announcing the verdict.

“It must be abated immediately.”

The opioid crisis has ravaged the state of Oklahoma Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman

The companies are expected to appeal against the ruling to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Before Oklahoma’s trial began on May 28, Oklahoma reached settlements with two other defendant groups — a 270 million-dollar (£221m) deal with OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma and an 85 million-dollar (£69m) settlement with Israeli-owned Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd.

Oklahoma argued the companies and their subsidiaries created a public nuisance by launching an aggressive and misleading marketing campaign that overstated how effective the drugs were for treating chronic pain and understated the risk of addiction.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter says opioid overdoses killed 4,653 people in the state from 2007 to 2017.

Mr Hunter has called Johnson & Johnson a “kingpin” company that was motivated by greed.

Judge Thad Balkman arrives to give his decision in the opioid lawsuit in Oklahoma (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

He specifically pointed to two former Johnson & Johnson subsidiaries, Noramco and Tasmanian Alkaloids, which produced much of the raw opium used by other manufacturers to produce the drugs.

“They’ve been the principal origin for the active pharmaceutical ingredient in prescription opioids in the country for the last two decades,” Mr Hunter said after the trial ended on July 15.

“It is one of the most important elements of causation with regard to why the defendants… are responsible for the epidemic in the country and in Oklahoma.”

Lawyers for the company have maintained they were part of a lawful and heavily regulated industry subject to strict federal oversight, including the US Drug Enforcement Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, during every step of the supply chain.

Lawyers for the company said the judgment was a misapplication of public nuisance law.

Sabrina Strong, a lawyer for Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries, said the companies have sympathy for those who suffer from substance abuse but called the judge’s decision “flawed”.

“You can’t sue your way out of the opioid abuse crisis,” Ms Strong said.

“Litigation is not the answer.”

Oklahoma pursued the case under the state’s public nuisance statute and presented the judge with a plan to abate the crisis that would cost between 12.6 billion dollars for 20 years and 17.5 billion dollars over 30 years.

Lawyers for Johnson & Johnson have said that estimate is wildly inflated.

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