$572 million verdict handed down in opioid trial

Randy Ellis and Chris Casteel Gatehouse Oklahoma

NORMAN — A judge returned a $572 million verdict against Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries Monday, ruling their misleading marketing and distribution of opioid painkillers triggered a deadly crisis expected to take a toll on Oklahomans for decades.

“The opioid crisis has ravaged the state of Oklahoma. It must be abated immediately,” Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman said in announcing the verdict.

The judge specifically agreed with the state of Oklahoma that Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries created a public nuisance that “compromised the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans.”

The verdict came in the first major lawsuit against opioid manufacturers to make it to trial. It was announced more than a month after the close of testimony in a nonjury trial that lasted more than six weeks and attracted international media attention.

The state had asked for more than $17 billion, saying it would take years to undo the damage.

The judge, though, explained in his written decision that his judgment — $572,102,028 — covers year one of an abatement plan.

“Though several of the State’s witnesses testified that the plan ‘will take at least 20 years’ to work, the State did not present sufficient evidence of the amount of time and costs necessary, beyond year one, to abate the Opioid Crisis,” the judge wrote. “The Court will enter such further Orders pertaining to the implementation of the Abatement Plan as necessary and in due course.”

Evidence presented during the trial revealed that Johnson & Johnson blanketed the state with sales representatives who were given financial incentives to persuade doctors to prescribe more opioids.

Johnson & Johnson specifically targeted doctors who were already high prescribers for extra sales visits, often buying them meals and leaving behind small gifts, testimony revealed.

Witnesses for the Johnson & Johnson contended the drug companies had done nothing wrong.

Company officials testified that the marketing messages they presented were tightly regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration and contained warnings that opioids were associated with major risks, including risks of addiction and death.

Johnson & Johnson attorneys also argued the state was attempting to misapply the state’s public nuisance law.

Prescription opioids were linked to more than 6,100 Oklahoma deaths from 2000-2017.

Oklahoma’s lawsuit originally named two other groups of pharmaceutical companies as additional defendants, but they were dropped from the lawsuit after they approved settlement agreements with the state. A group headed by Purdue Pharma agreed to pay $270 million, while a group headed by Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc., agreed to pay $85 million.

Oklahoma’s opioid lawsuit has drawn international attention because hundreds of similar lawsuits are currently awaiting trial, including more than 1,700 that have been consolidated in a major federal court action pending in Ohio.

Shortly before the trial against Johnson & Johnson began, the state of Oklahoma dropped fraud and other complaints and narrowed the case to the single issue of public nuisance.