Drugs giant held liable for opioid epidemic in landmark judgment
Drugs giant Johnson & Johnson has been ordered to pay $572m (€516m) for fuelling the opioid addiction crisis in Oklahoma.
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 1990s.
More than 400,000 people in the US 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," Judge Balkman said, reading part of his decision aloud from the bench.
"As a matter of law, I find that defendants' actions caused harm, and those harms are the kinds recognised by [state law]. Those actions annoyed, injured or endangered the comfort, repose, health or safety of Oklahomans."
The company, which has denied wrongdoing, immediately announced its intention to appeal against the judge's decision to uphold the state of Oklahoma's claim.
But with more than 40 states lined up to pursue similar claims, the ruling in the first state case to go to trial could influence both sides' strategies in the months and years to come.
Plaintiffs' attorneys around the country cheered the judge's decision, saying that they hoped it would be a model for an enormous federal lawsuit brought by nearly 2,000 cities, counties, Native American tribes and others which is scheduled to begin in Cleveland in October.
Judge Balkman did not give the state everything it sought; its attorneys had asked for $17.5bn over 30 years for treatment, emergency care, law enforcement, social services and other addiction-related needs.
But he concluded it would cost $572m to address the crisis in the first year based on the state's plan.
He said the state did not provide "sufficient evidence" of the time and money needed to respond after that.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter described the judgment as a "great triumph" two years in the making.
"Johnson & Johnson will finally be held accountable for thousands of deaths and addictions caused by their products," said Mr Hunter, a Republican. He challenged the company's CEO, Alex Gorsky, to "step up" and pay for treatment and other services for Oklahomans affected by substance abuse.
Company attorney Sabrina Strong said: "We are disappointed and disagree with the judge's decision. We believe it is flawed.
"We have sympathy for those who suffer from opioid use disorder. But Johnson & Johnson did not cause the opioid abuse crisis here in Oklahoma or anywhere in this country."
Elizabeth Chamblee Burch, a professor at the University of Georgia's law school who followed the case, said that other states will almost certainly adopt some of Oklahoma's strategy.
This included arguing Johnson & Johnson's culpability because it had two subsidiaries that produced, refined and supplied ingredients for opioids to many other companies.
But with state laws differing, it is unclear if other plaintiffs would be successful at proving the company harmed their residents, she said.
Alexandra Lahav, a professor at the University of Connecticut's law school, said it was too early to predict the effect of Judge Balkman's decision on future cases.
"I think it's important that people remember that this is just Oklahoma law, and it's a lower court judge," she said. "It hasn't been vetted on appeal yet."
Still, she said, the ruling may provide momentum to the idea that there is merit to these claims and encourage other states to pursue similar strategies.
As an outside observer, Prof Lahav said, she is not convinced that Johnson & Johnson's role as supplier of raw materials to other drug companies sufficiently connects it to the opioid crisis.
But Judge Balkman clearly accepted that, she said.
"I'm unconvinced that should be laid at Johnson & Johnson's door," she said. (© Washington Post)