An Oklahoma judge on Monday ruled against one of America’s biggest companies, Johnson & Johnson — ordering it to pay $572 million as part of the first trial of an opioid maker sued by a state for the human and financial costs of the prescription painkiller crisis.
The verdict could have huge implications as other states and communities target pharmaceutical firms for the epidemic of opioid abuse that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the United States since 2000. Over 2,000 lawsuits on the issue are aimed at various drug companies.
Oklahoma has accused Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, of creating a public nuisance that cost the state billions of dollars and caused thousands of deaths. Johnson & Johnson has denied any wrongdoing.
The state had asked for nearly $17.2 billion over 30 years to tackle the problem.
Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman released his decision Monday afternoon.
“The opioid crisis is an imminent danger and menace to Oklahomans,” Balkman, of Cleveland County District Court, said in delivering his decision, The New York Times reported.
Lawyers representing the state applauded the decision.
“We’ve shown that J&J was at the root cause of this opioid crisis,” Brad Beckworth, the lead attorney for the state, told the Times. “It made billions of dollars from it over a 20-year period. They’ve always denied responsibility and yet at the same time they say they want to make a difference in solving this problem. So do the right thing: come in here, pay the judgment.”
J&J disputes the notion that it helped create the opioid abuse epidemic, however.
“Janssen did not cause the opioid crisis in Oklahoma, and neither the facts nor the law support this outcome,” Michael Ullmann, the general counsel and executive vice president of J&J, said in a statement. “We recognize the opioid crisis is a tremendously complex public health issue and we have deep sympathy for everyone affected.”
The company does have deep pockets from which to pay the fine: According to the Times, J&J’s drug making subsidiary, Janssen, made more than $23 billion in United States in 2018 alone.
Oklahoma’s lawyers argued that the state has been hit hard by a flood of addictive opioids.
Speaking to the Times Oklahoma attorney general Mike Hunter said that in just three years — 2015 to 2018 — 18 million opioid prescriptions were written in a state with a population of just under 4 million people. And he added that since 2000, opioid drug overdoses have claimed the lives of about 6,000 Oklahomans.
The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse has more about prescription opioids.