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Judge Calls Opioid Crisis a ‘Menace’ to Society, Orders Johnson & Johnson to Pay $572 Million


An Oklahoma judge on Monday ruled against corporate giant Johnson & Johnson, ordering the company to pay more than half a billion dollars for its role in triggering and perpetuating the state’s opioid crisis.

Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman called the crisis an “imminent danger,” marking an end to the first trial stemming from a state lawsuit brought against an opioid producer. He also called the crisis a “menace to Oklahomans.”

“The state meant its burden that the defendants Janssen and Johnson & Johnson’s misleading marketing and promotion of opioids created a nuisance as defined by (the law), including a finding that those actions compromised the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans,” Balkman said, according to a report from CNBC.

“Specifically, defendants caused an opioid crisis that’s evidenced by increased rates of addiction, overdose deaths and neonatal abstinence syndrome,” Balkman added.

According to the New York Times, the state argued that through its contracts with poppy farms in Tasmania, Johnson & Johnson supplied approximately 60-percent of the opiate ingredients that pharmaceutical companies used in producing opioid painkillers such as oxycodone, which wrought unparalleled destruction across the state that will reverberate for generations.

The state also presented evidence illustrating that Johnson & Johnson packed Oklahoma with sales representatives whom were financially incentivized to convince doctors to prescribe more and more of the opioid painkillers to patients, according to The Oklahoman.

Trial testimony also revealed that sales reps for the drug manufacturer would specifically target physicians who were already prone to prescribing high amounts of opioids, often making extra visits to their offices, buying them lavish dinners, and giving them gifts.

Johnson & Johnson’s general counsel Michael Ullmann released a statement following the ruling in which he recognized that the opioid epidemic had brought the state great pain; Ullmann contended, however, that the company was not at fault.

“Janssen did not cause the opioid crisis in Oklahoma, and neither the facts nor the law supports this outcome,” Ullmann said. “We recognize the opioid crisis is a tremendously complex public health issue and we have deep sympathy for everyone affected. We are working with partners to find ways to help those in need.”

Monday’s ruling could have widespread effects for the producers of opioid pharmaceuticals, as hundreds of similar lawsuits are currently pending — including an estimated 2,000 opioid-related lawsuits that have been consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio.

The state of Oklahoma previously reached a $270-million settlement with Purdue Pharma (the producers of OxyContin) and an $85-million agreement with Teva Pharmaceutical Industries.

Johnson & Johnson opioid ruling by Law&Crime on Scribd

[image via Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.