In the first decision to hold a drug-maker accountable for any part of the decades-long opioid crisis, a district judge in Cleveland ruled Monday that Johnson & Johnson must pay more than $572 million for its role in flooding Oklahoma with the dangerous painkillers.
The decision, handed down by Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman, came in the first of many state cases against pharmaceutical companies to go to trial. (The company has said it will appeal the ruling.) More than 40 other states have filed similar claims, and it’s likely Monday’s decision will affect those cases. Separately, one giant federal lawsuit composed of complaints from nearly 2,000 cities, counties, and other smaller entities is scheduled to go to trial in October.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter brought the case in 2017 against Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, and Teva Pharmaceuticals. The state settled with the two other companies, getting $85 million from Teva and $270 million from Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, which owns the company. But Johnson & Johnson, which directly sold two prescription opioids and had two subsidiaries that also grew and supplied the opioids’ ingredients, instead faced a lengthy non-jury trial in which it insisted it had not misled doctors and was not responsible for any negative effects from legal, FDA-approved drugs. (Johnson & Johnson is perhaps better known to the public for its toothpaste, baby products, and many other household goods.)
The state’s lawsuit accused the companies of creating a “public nuisance” by making public health and safety worse with their opioids. Like others pushing for pharmaceutical companies to be held responsible, the state argued that Johnson & Johnson ruthlessly chased profit at the public’s expense, misleading doctors about the dangers of opioids and pushing them to prescribe the painkillers more often and at higher doses.
Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceutical, and Purdue Pharma have all denied wrongdoing. A lawyer for Johnson & Johnson said that Monday’s ruling misinterpreted the public nuisance law, which has been historically used more often to deal with noise, sex work, and pollution, according to the Washington Post.
According to CNBC, the fine of $572 million was on the lower end of the expected payout. Investors had expected the company to be fined anything from $500 million to $5 billion. Hunter had asked the judge for $17 billion in damages, to be put toward prevention and treatment programs for opioid addiction.
Officials in Oklahoma claim that more than 6,000 people in the state have died from the epidemic since the 1990s, when the crisis began. Nationwide, more than 400,000 have died.