An Oklahoma judge ruled that Johnson & Johnson must pay over $572 million for its role in the opioid crisis, setting a precedent that could allow other states to hold the pharmaceutical industry accountable for its actions.
Like most of the US, Oklahoma saw a massive spike in cases of opioid abuse, addiction, and overdoses in the past two decades. Early this year, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter took action against the massive corporations that have been pushing these addictive drugs. On behalf of his state, Hunter sued Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, and Teva Pharmaceutical for knowingly boosting their sales by downplaying the addictive risks of the drugs they were pushing.
In March, Purdue Pharma, manufacturers of OxyContin, settled with the state for $270 million, and in May, Teva settled for $85 million. Johnson & Johnson refused to settle, however, and stood trial this summer to defend their position. During the trial, Hunter argued that the pharmaceutical company deliberately created a marketing campaign to convince doctors to overprescribe two of its opioid medications, Duragesic and Nucynta.
Hunter told the court that Johnson & Johnson “embarked on a cynical, deceitful, multibillion-dollar brainwashing campaign to establish opioid analgesics as the magic drug,” NBC News reports. “Money may not be the root of all evil but... money can make people and businesses do bad things. Very bad things.”
Prosecutors argued that the company's deceptive marketing campaign contributed to the state's opioid epidemic, “a public nuisance” which claimed over 6,000 lives in Oklahoma durinmg the past two decades. The defense disagreed, arguing that Hunter was misinterpreting his own state's public nuisance law.
Thad Balkman, a Cleveland County district judge, sided with the state, ruling that the company's “misleading marketing and promotion of opioids created a nuisance," according to NBC. “The opioid crisis has ravaged the state of Oklahoma, it must be abated immediately,” Balkman said in court. “For this reason, I’m entering an abatement plan that consists of costs totaling $572,102,028 to immediately remediate the nuisance.”
Although the judge sided with Oklahoma in this case, this fine only represents a fraction of the damages that Hunter was seeking. The state sought $17 billion in damages, which would have been used to fund addiction treatment and prevention programs for the next 30 years. The $572 million fine that the judge granted only funds one year's worth of these programs.
A fine of over half a million dollars is enough to send most businesses into bankruptcy, but for Johnson & Johnson, a giant corporation that reported over $80 billion in profits during its last fiscal year, the fine is couch change. Still, Hunter said he was pleased that his team proved that the company "built its billion-dollar brand out of greed and on the backs of pain and suffering of innocent people,” NBC reports.
The case sets a precedent that could allow other states to take action against predatory pharmaceutical companies. In Ohio, a federal judge is preparing to hear nearly 2,000 pending lawsuits against the opioid industry in one landmark trial, and the results of this case suggest that the pharmaceutical industry could end up paying billions of dollars in fines — as they should.