According to the ruling, the pharmaceutical company “engaged in false and misleading marketing of both their drugs and opioids generally.”
In a decision that may have far-reaching implications for pharmaceutical companies across the United States, an Oklahoma judge has ruled that Johnson & Johnson must pay more than $572 million for its alleged role in helping create the state’s opioid crisis. Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman wrote in his ruling that the company and its pharmaceutical subsidiary, Janssen, “engaged in false and misleading marketing of both their drugs and opioids generally,” which he deemed a “public nuisance.”
Johnson & Johnson denied the allegation and plan to appeal Balkman’s verdict, which observers on both sides of the argument have been closely monitoring to determine its impact on a federal trial involving nearly 2,000 cases against opioid manufacturers slated for the fall of 2019.
Deceptive Marketing Practices
As both NBC News and CNN noted, final filings submitted earlier this month and statements in court by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter and other attorneys for the state argued that Johnson & Johnson had aggressively pursued medical professionals to prescribe opioid medication while minimizing the potential risk of addiction and/or overdose death through deceptive marketing practices.
Testimony from some of the relatives and friends of the more than 6,000 Oklahomans who died from opioid overdoses underscored Hunter’s assessment that the company had ignored scientific research in pursuit of a “magic pill” that would produce major profits.
The result, as Hunter said, was the “worst man-made public nuisance this state and our county has ever seen: the opioid crisis.”
Attorneys for Johnson & Johnson argued that the state failed to prove any elements of its case, from Janssen’s specific role in contributing to the opioid crisis to the impact of their marketing promotions. They added that the public nuisance accusation was nothing more than “potshots taken from promotional statements” and a misinterpretation of a law initially employed in property cases.
But Judge Balkman sided with the state, noting that the allegedly misleading marketing was “more than enough to serve as the act or omission necessary to establish the first element of Oklahoma’s public nuisance law.”
Major Public Health Crisis
The state initially asked for an abatement plan of approximately $17 billion, which would be applied to addiction treatment and prevention programs over a period of 30 years. The plan, calculated by Christopher Ruhm, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia, included the costs of addiction treatment, physician education plans, care for babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, prescription tracking programs, grief support and more over the next three decades.
“It is a lot of money. It’s also a major public health crisis,” Ruhm said.
Balkman’s verdict called for an abatement program of $572,102,028 – about one year’s worth of payments under the state’s proposals. In his ruling, he wrote that “The state did not present sufficient evidence of the amount of time and costs necessary, beyond year one, to abate the opioid crisis.”
Johnson & Johnson Plan to Appeal
Johnson & Johnson’s executive vice president and general counsel, Michael Ullmann, said in a statement that his company was innocent of any wrongdoing and planned to appeal.
He also wrote “The unprecedented award for the State’s ‘abatement plan’ has sweeping ramifications for many industries and bears no relation to the Company’s medicines or conduct.”
But as CNN noted, the case could also have considerable impact on the numerous lawsuits filed against drugmakers by states, cities and communities across the country. Carl Tobias, a professor of law at the University of Richmond in Virginia, said in early August that attorneys have been “watching and learning from the case Oklahoma has assembled, while defendants have been watching for vulnerabilities.”